The original production of Little Shop of Horrors first debuted Off-Off-Broadway in 1982 and then suddenly Seymour and company made their way to the Orpheum Theater for an Off-Broadway production that ran for five years. A hybrid of sci-fi and comedy, the musical about a carnivorous plant looking to take over the world became a cult classic spawning numerous productions and had a film adaptation starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene in 1986. After almost four decades, it has still retained its cult status with its R&B flair and irreverent, yet earnest lyrics and the new production at the Pasadena Playhouse continues the tradition with a fresh, inclusive iteration of the musical favorite.
The genre-driven musical comedy with music by Alan Menken and book and lyrics by the late, great Howard Ashman still feeds the soul with camp, humor, heart and its subversive charm. The Pasadena Playhouse production may just be a cast of eight, but they have an impact of a full-out 50-member company. Ripped from the pages of a B-movie script, director Mike Donahue has fun with this original take on the classic stage show about the lonely, lovable, yet doofy Seymour (George Salazar) who works at a down and out flower shop on Skid Row. While working there, he discovers an unusual alien plant that eventually becomes more than he can handle — in other words, it craves fresh blood in order to survive. All the while he develops a relationship with his flower shop co-worker soft-spoken Audrey (Pose‘s Mj Rodriguez) who has huge dreams. Things go bonkers once the plant, named Audrey II (whose voice is provided by the bellowing, bring-me-to-church vocals of Glee alum Amber Riley), starts to crave more than plant food and has aspirations of world domination.
The trifecta of Salazar, Rodriguez and Riley are the beating heart of this play, bringing all the elements of what this musical is together. Salazar brings the sci-fi geekiness and earnestness with Seymour, Rodriguez brings the unwavering heart and hope with Audrey and Riley brings full-out campy pizzazz as Audrey II.
The casting goes full Hamilton with its inclusive casting in roles that are typically portrayed by white actors. Salazar, who is half Filipino and half Ecuadorian, leads strong with a character who can be seen as a doormat. As Seymour, he has an infectious sincerity that is wholesome — with a hint of playful darkness. Rodriguez, the first trans actress to play the role of Audrey in a major stage production of Little Shop of Horrors, lights up the stage, serving more of her vocal talent that many were treated to in Pose. Each time Rodriguez takes the stage her mere presence nestles itself into your heart and brings an enormous amount of love as she sings. And the chemistry between Salazar and Rodriguez embodies relationship goals — and it hits its peak when the two sing the trademark showstopping, “Suddenly Seymour”, which is a highlight of this rollicking production. All the while, in a role that is typically voiced by a man, Riley booms with soul and is a hovering botanical threat as her performance devours the audience.
From the beginning, Brittany Campbell, Tickwanya Jones and Cheyenne Isabel Wells belt out sickening blends and harmonies and maintain the show’s R&B soul throughout, serving up some serious Destiny’s Child and En Vogue funky divas realness.
The cast also sings with Tony-nominated actor Kevin Chamberlin as the high-strung flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik while Matthew Wilkas seamlessly wears multiple hats as a myriad of characters during the show but brings sociopathic flair to his main role as the toxic Orin Scrivello — who is also Audrey’s abusive boyfriend.
The marvel of the monster, man-eating plant known as Audrey II grows in size and spectacle as the story unfolds and definitely brings the essence of B-movie ridiculousness. It is careful not to cross the line of absurd and manages to be scary enough. Major kudos should be given to the musical’s puppeteers Tyler Bremer, Kelsey Kato, Tim Kopacz, Sarah Kay Peters and Paul Turbiak for bringing the deathly funny and monstrous Audrey II to life.
Pasadena Playhouse delivers a production of Little Shop of Horrors that continues its unique brand of soulful camp and heart almost 40 years after the seed was originally planted in its Off-Off-Broadway production. With its inclusive casting and modern sheen, the sci-fi comedy musical still “feeds” us bloody fantastic, man-eating plant fun.
The Little Shop of Horrors is currently playing at the Pasadena Playhouse and continues its run through October 20.