'Little Shop of Horrors': Theater Review

Little Shop of Horrors Production Still - Publicity - H 2019
Jenny Graham
Feed the flowers, you'll be glad you did.

'Pose' star Mj Rodriguez and George Salazar lead the entertaining revival of the once edgy off-Broadway show that became a mainstream movie and is now an old chestnut.

In the rollicking revival of Little Shop of Horrors at Pasadena Playhouse, Mj Rodriguez stars as Audrey, an abused and forlorn romantic, not unlike her role as the no-nonsense maternal Blanca Evangelista on FX's Pose. The fact that she's the first trans performer to take on the role isn't what makes this stripped-down iteration feel fresh; brisk and rhythmic pacing emphasizing music over dialogue is key to keeping this vivacious production whimsically afloat. 

The show ran five years at off-Broadway's Orpheum Theatre in the 1980s, becoming a movie in 1986 starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin as the comically sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello. Little Shop had its Broadway premiere in a 2003 production and was presented in a celebrated semi-staged New York concert in 2015, with original Audrey Ellen Greene reprising her role opposite Jake Gyllenhaal as Seymour. Hot on the heels of this West Coast revival, the show will open off-Broadway next month in a new production starring Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard and Christian Borle.

The sci-fi B-movie spoof originated on film, in the 1960 Roger Corman black comedy shot over just 48 hours, which provided one of the earliest credits of Jack Nicholson, who chews the scenery as the dentist's patient. 

At the center of the story is Seymour Krelborn (George Salazar), whose knowledge of women is woefully outsized by his understanding of flora, making him ideal for his job at Mushnik's Skid Row Florists. He is secretly in love with co-worker Audrey, who is in an abusive relationship with Scrivello (Matthew Wilkas). But when Seymour's latest sprout, Audrey II (voiced by Amber Riley), turns out to be of the talking carnivorous variety, the kind that can easily dispose of problems like nosy bosses and abusive boyfriends, things suddenly start going his way. 

Rodriguez delivers an Audrey who is as emotionally fragile and vulnerable as her predecessors in the role but without the cartoonishly thick New York accent adopted by Greene, star of both the original production and the movie. Touchingly hopeful as she sings in a reedy soprano voice "Somewhere That's Green," her dream of a stable life in the suburbs, Rodriguez demonstrates greater volume in her anthemic duet with Salazar, the show's signature number, "Suddenly Seymour." 

Together, Rodriguez and Salazar are endearing despite minimal chemistry, which may be due to the text. Little Shop of Horrors isn't about romance, but is instead a retrograde paradigm about a schnook overcoming his demons and winning the girl. As Seymour, Salazar (a breakout star of Broadway's Be More Chill) is amply nebbishy, with an adequate tenor voice and an infectious personality that amiably centers the production. 

Director Mike Donahue staged world premieres of The Legend of Georgia McBride and Zoey's Perfect Wedding, both by red-hot playwright Matthew Lopez, whose much-anticipated The Inheritance begins previews this week at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre. His work here in scenic designer Dane Laffrey's sparse, drop-ceiling industrial space highlights his facility with ensemble performance, seamlessly blending the main action with the choral Ronettes and their deliriously retro dance steps courtesy of choreographer Will B. Bell. Donahue likewise establishes a naturalistic rapport between Salazar and Riley's Audrey II, the playful and empathetic (at first), fauna on which the story turns. 

Riley, the Glee star who wowed London critics in 2016 in Dreamgirls, takes over what has usually been a male role, voiced in the movie by singer Levi Stubbs of Motown quartet The Four Tops. While Riley's voice is less intimidating than his, she's a much better singer, bringing soulful coloratura to her sanguinary solo, "Suppertime." But puppeteer Sean Cawelti's design for Audrey II seems strained by budget, underwhelming in the show’s climactic conflict, where the invading plant species is represented as a thin array of hand-manipulated day-glo vines. 

As Scrivello the psychotic dentist, Wilkas settles on a madness distinct from that of predecessors, friendlier but a little off, and only truly intimidating when he’s brutalizing poor Audrey. His rendition of "Dentist!," a potentially show-stealing paean to the love of pain, amuses but leaves this production unpurloined, though he heroically sings "Now (It’s Just the Gas)" through a gas mask in his humorously overwrought first act closer.

As the mercenary posy pusher, Mr. Mushnik, Broadway veteran Kevin Chamberlin treads the line between paternal and transactional, winning sympathies for an undeservedly disagreeable finish. Brittany Campbell, Cheyenne Isabel Wells and Tickwanya Jones reign supreme as the Ronettes, a Motown trio that establishes the tone of composer Alan Menken’s score from the opening title theme. 

Among the composer's earlier works, Little Shop of Horrors pegs the Tony Award and eight-time Oscar winner's recurring predilection for nostalgic mid-century backbeat melodies. Book and lyrics are by Howard Ashman, who died in 1991 of AIDS at the age of 40; their other collaborations include Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid

When it opened off-Broadway, Little Shop of Horrors won a bunch of awards and became a must-see hit with real staying power. The fact that the new off-Broadway revival currently in previews has already been extended eight weeks suggests a durability to the show’s appeal. The new production at Pasadena Playhouse conclusively seals the deal.

Venue: Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena
Cast: George Salazar, Mj Rodriguez, Amber Riley, Kevin Chamberlin, Matthew Wilkas, Brittany Campbell, Tickwanya Jones, Cheyenne Isabel Wells
Director: Mike Donahue
Book and lyrics: Howard Ashman
Music: Alan Menken
Set designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume designer: Danae Iris McQueen
Lighting designer: Josh Epstein
Sound designer: Veronika Vorel
Puppet designer: Sean Cawelti
Music director: Darryl Archibald
Choreographer: Will B. Bell
Presented by Pasadena Playhouse