Don’t feed the plants—or, in this case, one hot pink monstrosity of a plant. This is not your mother’s Little Shop of Horrors that opened at the Pasadena Playhouse last night—most of the camp has been replaced with grit in an iteration that illuminates the realities of Skid Row life. But the results are mixed—while some performances and choices are successful, others miss the mark and seem to be the result of a confused creative vision.
Little Shop of Horrors, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics and book by Howard Ashman, is enjoying a bit of a renaissance right now. Originally based on a 1960 black comedy film, it has enjoyed successful productions around the world, including on Broadway, since its debut in 1982, even inspiring a movie musical adaptation in 1986. With a cast of only eight, it has long been a popular choice for community theaters and schools, but right now marks a rare moment where there are two high-profile professional productions running concurrently on opposite coasts. In addition to the Pasadena Playhouse production, an Off-Broadway revival starring Jonathan Groff and Tammy Blanchard is currently in previews and opens on October 17th at the Westside Theater in New York. When the two casts were announced, fans of the show were struck by the dramatic differences—to put it simply, the New York cast is incredibly white, while the Pasadena cast consists of primarily people of color and features Mj Rodriguez (Pose) as the first trans woman of color to play Audrey.
For those who may be unaware, the story follows Seymour (George Salazar), an awkward, bumbling orphan who works in a struggling Skid Row flower shop owned by his adopted father figure, Mr. Mushnik (Kevin Chamberlin). He pines after his coworker Audrey, who is trapped in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Dr. Orin Scrivello (Matthew Wilkas). Seymour enjoys experimenting with botany, and his pride and joy is a unique plant he has named Audrey II (voiced by Amber Riley). He purchased it during a solar eclipse, and for a while he is confused by its odd behavior and failure to thrive—until he accidentally pricks his finger and realizes Audrey II craves human blood. With this untenable diet figured out, the strange plant begins to grow and attract media attention, and before long Seymour is a local celebrity and business at the once-failing flower shop is booming. Rounding out the cast are three local “street urchins” who form the show’s Greek Chorus of sorts—Ronnette (Brittany Campbell), Chiffon (Tickwanya Jones), and Crystal (Cheyenne Isabel Wells).
Directed by Mike Donahue, the first confusing thing about this production is the mystery of when it is set. The original story takes place in the 1960s, and lyrical references to Howdy Doody, Donna Reed, and “enormous” 12-inch screen televisions constantly remind you of this. But while the characters use rotary phones and congregate around an old-fashioned car parked on the side of the set, they also wear modern clothing. The bags of plant food look like what you would buy at Home Depot in 2019, and Dr. Orin’s dentist set-up is state-of-the-art.
It also does not help that the performances of the actors vary wildly in tone, making you wonder if they realize they are all in the same show. Salazar, fresh from the Broadway run of Be More Chill, is a perfect Seymour—he’s dorky yet endearing, ignorant yet sympathetic, and he seems to understand the campy source material, literally entering his first scene with a pratfall. But there is no humor to be found in Rodriguez’s very sincere performance. Hers is a 21st century Audrey through-and-through, more of a real person than the over-the-top character many of us think of. But the issue is that historically, Audrey’s loud sense of style and quirky mannerisms are what give the character any sense of self at all, a difficult task considering she spends the entire musical at the mercy of the problematic men around her. But instead of bold animal prints, Rodriguez’s Audrey wears muted earth tones—so muted, in fact, that she almost fades away, along with any personality the character might have had. It does not help that Rodriguez’s vocals are not the strongest, even on “Suddenly Seymour,” which is performed in a lowered key to accommodate her more comfortable register, a change that unfortunately takes a lot of oomph out of the usually show-stopping number.
The seriousness of this Audrey only makes the already difficult jokes about domestic violence more uncomfortable—instead of a cheeky revenge story, her relationship with Dr. Orin is just a heartbreaking, cringeworthy tale. And adding to the mixed messages even further, Wilkas plays his character’s final scene as if he is in a wacky slapstick comedy. But Chamberlin hits the nail on the head with finding the right amount of comedy in Mr. Mushnik, and the three urchins consistently stun with gorgeous vocals, particularly impressive because this is the professional theater debut for both Wells and Jones.
But the most baffling performance of all is that of Audrey II—not Riley, whose voice is powerful and fun, but of the puppet, a hideous hot pink creature that looks like a cross between a children’s stuffed animal and some oversized pipe cleaners. During most productions, the plant’s remarkable growth as it devours more and more human blood is clearly tracked, with the prop swapped out a couple of times for increasingly large iterations. But here, the same tiny Audrey II is present in both the first scene and the last scene. Instead, shadows grow while the physical prop’s size remains stagnant, or, later, puppeteers operate branches of a larger plant. The puppetry work is okay, but the moment the lights go back to normal and you see the same, tiny plant still sitting there, it takes you out of the moment completely. And even the conceit of the puppetry changes without rhyme or reason—it’s different every time. This does not seem to be because the plant is evolving, but rather because everyone involved was deeply confused. I have never related more to Seymour’s pleas in “Grow For Me”—what is Little Shop without a growing Audrey II? And usually, when Audrey sings “Somewhere That’s Green,” a beautiful ballad where she imagines an idyllic suburban life, the lyrics are full of dark irony because the murderous plant sitting nearby is also green. I do not recall her singing about somewhere that’s pink.
Here’s the thing—the idea of a gritty remake of Little Shop has a lot of potential. Darker reimaginings of classics are very in vogue right now—see the current Broadway revival of Oklahoma!. Given the Skid Row setting and the dark themes, there is a world in which this could work very well, but this production lacks the cohesive vision necessary to pull that off. Instead the end result is much like act one Seymour—confused, a little awkward, and lacking in confidence.
Little Shop of Horrors runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through October 20th. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.