A fresh, pulsating and wholly re-imagined “Little Shop of Horrors” opened at Pasadena Playhouse Wednesday evening to a packed house that was brimming with excitement. Director Mike Donohue has a decidedly contemporary, unique take on this little tale of misfits, losers and lovers that is a funny and delightful ride. The story begins on the urban streets of New York’s skid row, where a socially awkward, grown-up orphan, Seymour Krelborn, sings of his squalid little life in a “downtown” he longs to escape. He’s been taken in and given a job by Mr. Mushnik at a down on its luck flower shop where he carefully tends an odd species of flytrap while pining after his sexy, insecure co-worker, Audrey. In fact, he’s named the curious plant Audrey II, such is his infatuation with her. But strange and mysterious things begin to occur once Seymour realizes that Audrey II only grows when he feeds her his blood. It is an epic, fantastical and campy adventure full of rapturous songs you’ll be singing for days and weeks after viewing.
For those craving a recreation of the original, this is not what this is about. Donahue set out to start from scratch and create something more of the moment while staying within the context of the original material. The casting is diverse and clearly set in the here and now with all the leads seen in a fresh, new way. Mj Rodriguez, of “Pose” fame, gives Audrey a very real vulnerability and is at her very best when singing. Her heartbreaking “Somewhere That’s Green” is among the best I’ve ever seen as she gets to the beating core of her longing all while singing hysterical lyrics about dreams of a “fence of real chain link” and their “bedtime, 9:15.” Rodriguez digs deep for these moments and the fondness she and George Salazar have for each other is palpable in the exultant “Suddenly Seymour” number. Salazar is an absolute powerhouse as Seymour, from nebbish loser to passionate hero, he beautifully anchors the show.
Broadway veteran Kevin Chamberlain brings fantastic comedy chops to Mr. Mushnik and makes for an adorable grouch. Positively chewing scenery is the talented Matthew Wilkas who does a particularly sinister, bad boyfriend, Orin Scrivello, along with several other characters, fully committing to each of their oddities. I dare you to not laugh right along with his most infectious giggles during “Now (its just the gas)”.
The three street urchins, who act as Greek Chorus to the story, are played with sass and pitch perfect harmonies by Brittany Campbell, Tickwanya Jones, and Cheyenne Isabel Wells. Each has a chance to showcase their big, distinctive voices, expertly executing the dynamic Will B. Bell choreography that pops. The Danae Iris McQueen costume design and Dane Laffrey sets all work beautifully together to create this whole new, grittier production.
Which brings us to the concept design for Audrey II, who eventually grows to consume the entire shop. Black clad “ninja” puppeteers maneuvering the tentacles of the carnivorous plant made for something altogether different, along the lines of a kuroko theatrical experience. There were moments where this technique really worked and proved quite magical but at other times, it was less effective. I would have loved to have seen them make much more use of the large, main portion of the giant plant. “She” could have actually sung and moved, which I know harkens back to the original, however I felt that the underuse of the big plant did a disservice to Amber Riley. She brings her big, R&B vocals to the table and has fun, cheeky moments but sometimes the sound system emphasized the fact that she is not on stage as her voice seemed to come from somewhere other than the plant. But overall, Audrey II’s stuff is funny and endearing, especially the use of what appears to be an animatronic puppet version that moves and even walks on its own.
It’s a new “Little Shop” for a new generation, but there is something for everyone in this exciting and innovative production.
Little Shop of Horrors runs through Sunday, October 20, 2019 at Pasadena Playhouse located at 39, South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101.
Tickets available at PasadenaPlayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 626-356-7529 or in person at the playhouse box office. Prices start at $25.
Tuesday-Friday evenings at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m; Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.