Interview: Jeffrey Lo of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Offers a Fresh Take on the Beloved Musical

Set in San Francisco's Chinatown, Lo's production runs in Palo Alto November 30 to December 24

By: Dec. 12, 2022
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Interview: Jeffrey Lo of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Offers a Fresh Take on the Beloved Musical
Jeffrey Lo, director of Little Shop of Horrors
at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
(photo by Tasi Alabastro)

If you've found yourself growing a little weary of the traditional holiday festivities this year, how about trading in the mistletoe for some more unorthodox greenery - the carnivorous Audrey II of the delightfully offbeat musical Little Shop of Horrors? This holiday season, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is presenting a new production of the classic musical that resets it in San Francisco's Chinatown. With a score chock full of irresistible tunes, Little Shop of Horrors tells a cautionary tale of the consequences of greed and unchecked capitalism. In this inventive new production, director Jeffrey Lo uses the Chinatown setting to explore the cross-cultural community fostered there by marginalized people of color. Lo's concept examines the gentrification and disenfranchisement in San Francisco and spotlights the vibrant culture of Chinatown that has remained unique in spite of the pressures to assimilate.

Little Shop of Horrors was written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the Oscar-winning team behind Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Based on the cult-classic B-movie by Roger Corman and Charles Griffith, the musical enjoyed a smash five-year run Off-Broadway and became an Oscar-nominated film starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene and Steve Martin. The show has been performed at theaters around the world and is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed and massively popular Off-Broadway revival that has proven just how relevant its themes continue to be.

I recently caught up with Jeffrey Lo by phone while he was in the thick of rehearsals. We talked about his concept for shifting the locale to San Francisco's Chinatown, how that decision changes the way certain scenes resonate, and why he was so drawn to the show in the first place. It turns out that a production he saw as a teenager played a seminal role in steering him toward a career in the theatre. In addition to his "day job" as TheatreWorks' Casting Director/Literary Manager, Lo is a much sought-after stage director throughout the Bay Area as well as an accomplished playwright. In conversation, his love for the artform comes through loud and clear, as does his sheer joy at being given the opportunity to direct one of his all-time favorite musicals. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I've loved Little Shop of Horrors ever since hearing the original cast album way back in the early 1980s. I remember being blown away by songs like "Somewhere That's Green" and "Skid Row" that manage to be so much fun and also deeply moving. What was your own introduction to the show?

I am like 95% sure it was the first musical I ever watched onstage, at CMT (Children's Musical Theatre San Jose) in my freshman year of high school, and I loved it. I didn't have much theatre in my upbringing, it was something that sort of found me towards the end of high school. Eventually as I became more of a theatre person and started to expand my vocabulary in theatre, I would hear about Little Shop of Horrors and I'd listen to the music, and then if a local production would come about I'd catch it and always go "Omigosh, I love this show!"

The music is so catchy, the humor is so wonderful and then - although it took a while for me to develop this - I made the realization that there's so much meaning to the camp and humor. It's about greed and it's a cautionary tale encouraging all of us as an audience to be generous people. This musical is so in line with who I am as a person and as an artist - and also so much fun.

You've reset the show to San Francisco's Chinatown. How did you get the idea and how does that impact the world of the show?

With many shows I know and love, I'm interested in how we can reframe or recontextualize them to make them even more impactful or make us view things in a different way. I wasn't interested in making this resetting in San Francisco's Chinatown into just like "Oh, this is the clothing that we're wearing now, but the show's exactly the same." I was really excited by thinking about this as a piece about people in challenging economic situations and the desperation that they're feeling that pushes them to make choices they might not necessarily make otherwise. San Francisco is for me the poster child of what can happen and what can be erased through gentrification. Chinatown is a part of San Francisco that is desperately fighting gentrification tooth and nail, and fighting not to lose their culture, what makes them unique. I thought it was a perfect setting to explore the themes and the music.

I was also thinking about the fact that this was maybe my first musical theatre experience and one of my first theatre experiences in general. I kept thinking about how I fell in love with theatre despite the fact that I didn't necessarily always relate to, or see myself in, a lot of the people I was seeing onstage or on TV or in other media. And I was thinking that in the holidays at TheatreWorks, we have this wonderful pattern with ticket sales. We get big group sales to students, adults and seniors. That's a family - that's grandparents, parents and children going to the theater together. We view that as really special and try to be intentional when we choose what shows we do during the winter holiday slot.

This musical has made so many people fall in love with theatre because the music is so catchy, the story is so funny and moving in a lot of ways. So how can we also take someone who was maybe like me when I was growing up and help them see someone like themselves on that stage and fall in love with that music in a different way? And so far, so good. In rehearsals, we're having a great time.

The leads are Asian American, but you've stuck with the tradition of casting Black performers as Crystal, Ronette, Chiffon, and Audrey II. Did you ever consider not doing that?

No, I didn't. There was a conversation around it, but I wasn't interested in an all Asian-American or an all Chinese cast of this show. I wanted to set it in San Francisco's Chinatown, but I was also excited to put a nod to the fact that when you go into Chinatown you see people of various cultures engaging with the businesses and the people, and there's a diversity to it. I think that's where our concept came in conversation with the text as written. Audrey II was a man originally, but Ronette, Chiffon and Crystal were written to be Black women. Keeping those roles to their original intent gives us this opportunity to represent the engagement that different cultures have with each other in America, and that's one of the things that makes America such a beautiful place.

When you and I last spoke in May of 2021, you mentioned that you believed in the concept of "identity-conscious casting." In practice, what exactly does that term mean to you?

Identity-conscious casting is opposed to, say, color-blind casting (and I don't know how much that term is used anymore). Color-blind casting to me is like it doesn't matter what the person's background is, what their identities are, their disabilities or anything. We're just gonna cast people and that's who they are playing these characters, which does have some merit to it. But what I'm really interested in is identity-conscious casting where [we explore] what it means to put someone of this identity in this character and how that changes the role, rather than acting as if their identity doesn't change anything.

Here's one really beautiful example, and it's sort of a nugget of where the idea for Little Shop probably started. I assistant-directed TheatreWorks' most recent production of Proof, the David Auburn play. I forget what year it was, but in that production we had an entirely Black cast. There's a scene where the young woman is trying to get the young man to basically leave, and he's really trying to push [to stay] to learn about her dead father, and she says, "If you don't go, I'm gonna call the police."

This is set in Chicago, and in the first few rehearsals we were just performing the play as written and probably performing it the way most people perform the play, and then there was a moment where the performer, Lance Gardner, stops and goes, "Wait a minute. I think I'm not doing this right." And I said, "What do you mean?" And he goes, "I think I am just doing the play, but ... I as a Black man would respond very differently if someone told me they would call the police on me."

Then we sat and had a conversation to see what that meant, what were the differences in how we approached the text, given the circumstance that all four of these characters were Black in this production, and I saw that provided this immense richness to an already amazing script and an already amazing story. It gave us this opportunity to explore even more stuff in an amazing text.

So I think that was sort of the root of it. I've held onto that one rehearsal where it really opened my eyes to another avenue of working, and I've kept thinking about how powerful that was. Then it was only a matter of time before I landed on Little Shop and Chinatown.

Interview: Jeffrey Lo of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Offers a Fresh Take on the Beloved Musical
(L to R) Phil Wong as Seymour and Sumi Yu as Audrey
in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of Little Shop of Horrors
(photo by Andria Lo)

The female lead, Audrey, is the victim of emotional and physical abuse. Does the fact that she's Chinese American at all affect the way those scenes resonate?

In some ways it does... and in a lot of ways it doesn't, right? The domestic abuse of women unfortunately is something that appears in all cultures and backgrounds, tragically, but I do think that there's something really interesting in having that story being told by Asian Americans. In a lot of the media traditionally or in the past there has been this viewing of Asian American men as just sort of dopey or nerdy or the butt of jokes and not necessarily as walking around with a certain machismo that you might see in a lot of other cultures. By having Orin [Audrey's abusive boyfriend] be an Asian American man, it's a reminder that, oh yeah, abuse and toxic masculinity do appear in all cultures.

I see what you mean. I feel like Asian men, especially onscreen, are often relegated to playing these sort of "quasi-men."

Yeah, exactly.

They're not given their full humanity, in both its positive and negative aspects. It's like we've somehow come up with this narrow range of personality types that signifies "Asian male."

Yeah, and at least in the presentation of Orin and Seymour in their relationship to Audrey (now I know Seymour takes this dark turn and he's pushed into directions that we don't want him to go in), I think it's really powerful to show both a version of toxic masculinity in an Asian American man, and then also a version of a pure and gentle and really healthy masculinity in terms of how Seymour treats Audrey.

In terms of how Audrey's journey as a Chinese American woman is different, especially in terms of the abuse, we've had this discussion in rehearsal. I don't know that my experience leaves me equipped to talk about it too much, but I'm sure that there is so much in Sumi Yu's [who portrays Audrey] - who's just a brilliant genius of an actor - experiences with men that is unique to her Asian American identity.

I realize my questions have focused more on the darkness in the show, but I don't want to discount the fact that it's a boatload of fun, too.

It's so fun!

As director, how do you balance the darkness and the levity?

Well, that's something we've been working towards, just trying to find the right tone and also allowing ourselves to calibrate the tone as the show goes on. It's a two-hour and 15-minute show and it changes in tone from before [spoiler alert] Audrey II starts to speak and eat people, and I think that in the storytelling we're able to have that tone sort of fluctuate as well. I will say I was nervous about it a little bit because my intent was always to treat Audrey's domestic abuse journey with the gravity and respect it deserves because so many go through tragedies like that.

I did get to see the Off-Broadway revival that's running now right before we started rehearsals, and there was the moment where Orin threatens Audrey emotionally, not physically, but when you see her cower in fear from him, it was incredibly scary. And we sort of lived in that moment for a little bit, and Seymour lived in that moment, and then the play kept moving forward. It was a real relief to me where I'm like "The musical still works!" We can still laugh at the parts that are funny, we can still go on this campy journey, but it doesn't mean we are not allowed to respect the gravity of these situations. The writing is so brilliant and sincere that I think the creators knew that that would be the case, if you did it with sincerity and heart.

You know, with some pieces of writing when you evaluate them in a context where we've sort of thought a little bit more, expanded our minds a little bit more, or are more mindful of certain things, it's unclear whether or not they will still work today the way they did before. And Little Shop I think still works - 100%.

I'll also say that in terms of how we allow it to still be funny and keep the lightness of the music and everything is that at TheatreWorks for about the past year we've been really thrilled and lucky to have an Artist Counselor on retainer for all our shows. For example, we just did Gem of the Ocean and for that we had a group of actors having to put themselves through recounting the abuse of slavery and things like that. So it's been a really beautiful thing to have an Artist Counselor, her name is Judi Nihei, be a part of this process.

And yesterday, before we staged the domestic abuse moments with our combat and intimacy director, Carla Pantoja, we sat with her and sort of put everything on the table, like this is the reality of what this is and how this might cause certain emotions or triggers for cast members or audience members and like how we're handling this. And we're doing a musical, so you're going to have to act through something really, really horrible, and then sing and dance afterwards. It was us working with the actors on how we make sure we do this in a way that's both healthy and protecting ourselves, and also makes it so we're able to do our jobs, which is to tell a fun and amazing story to our audiences. It's been just a beautiful experience to be involved in that.

Staging those kinds of scenes can be kind of scary for both the director and the actors, because you're asking your cast to do something that's potentially very troubling for them personally. I can imagine that having someone else in the room with you would really help take so many of the worries out of that whole dynamic.

Yeah, and it's super wonderful where it's someone whose specialty both is to create that safely, and to help all of us be mindful of the care of the actors. Even before we stage anything, there's a lot of help on how we turn on and off the characters, like how do we tap in and tap out so that we know this is the character and this is you, and how do we help separate those things? Because early on you know people could have to do horrible, horrible things, and they'd feel like they had to apologize to their fellow cast members. And now it's like "No, you're acting, you're doing your job." So how do we do some sort of ritual or some sort of something to make sure that we are on and then we're off, and we are all on the same page?

The score to Little Shop is chock full of infectious tunes. Did you wake up this morning with any particular song going through your head?

Omigosh! The song that was in my head today is the one after the radio interview that the urchins are singing, "You Never Know."

Just knowing I'd be interviewing you about Little Shop of Horrors today, I woke up with "Skid Row" running through my brain on a constant loop! [laughs]

I was talking to the cast after our stumble-through rehearsal of Act I, and I asked what did you learn, what were some things that struck you, notes we need to work on? Lawrence-Michael C. Arias who's playing Mushnik said, "I just can't help being incredibly moved by us performing 'Skid Row.' Like I just get really emotional watching us do this." And then I was talking to them about my love for it. As I was prepping for the show, listening to different cast albums of it over and over again in the car, usually I'm just thinking through the music and listening to the words. The one moment that I can't help myself and just get carried away is during "Skid Row." As soon as Seymour comes on, no matter what's going on, I just start going "Poor. All my life I've always been poor." [laughs] I become Seymour in that moment, no matter what, like I can be thinking really deep thoughts and as soon as he comes in with "Poor," I'm singing along with him.


Little Shop of Horrors will be presented November 30 - December 24, 2022 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For more information visit or call (877)-662-8978.


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