Review: Pasadena Playhouse Revitalizes ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ with Extra Servings of Intrigue & Invention

George Salazar in "Little Shop of Horrors" at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Jenny Graham

The Pasadena Playhouse, led by Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman, undoubtedly has yet another production worthy of the highest acclaim since the universally loved “Ragtime,” this time with “Little Shop of Horrors” – the Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken (music) dark comedy musical masterpiece. It was inspired by a film in 1960 of the same name (only with “The” before the title), which also spawned the beloved classic with Rick Moranis and Steve Martin in 1986. Director Mike Donahue has done a superb directorial job of reimagining much of the 1980’s urban science fiction escapade at the Playhouse (playing through October 20th) with new dramatic developments that will have audience members smiling, laughing, and becoming teary-eyed throughout the two-hour-and-15-minute duration.

Cheyenne Isabel Wells, Brittany Campbell and Tickwanya Jones in “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Jenny Graham

For those not familiar with the outlandishly entertaining premise, it focuses on Seymour Krelborn, a young-adult orphan with low self-esteem, who works alongside the object of his affection, Audrey, under the employ of the cantankerous Mr. Mushnik at a struggling flower shop on skid row. Seymour suddenly comes into the possession of a curious plant reminiscent of the carnivorous venus flytrap, except this one – anointed “Audrey II” by Seymour in honor of his crush — poses a much greater threat to humans as it grows in size, due to the good intentions of the protagonist who doesn’t know any better. The now (secretly) talking and bellowing Audrey II becomes a hit for both the shop and the intrigued media as Seymour gets closer to Audrey despite the fact she’s already in an (abusive) relationship with rebel wannabe, Dr. Orin Scrivello, DDS. The auspicious turn of events, however, is too good to be true, especially as Audrey II’s blood-sucking tendrils get flagrantly out of line.

Donahue makes sure to hit all the right plot points with increased sincerity and invention, embracing each bit for its strangeness, hilarity, or both. Menken’s tunes are timeless and just as infectiously catchy as they were when first heard decades ago. Musical director Darryl Archibald along with conductor John Gentry Tennyson and his pit orchestra capture the deviously playful spirit of the numbers with a clarity that is not only pleasant but highly effective at pacing the suspense, drama, and rib-tickling laughs.

Kevin Chamberlin and George Salazar in “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Jenny Graham

Similarly, Will B. Bell’s choreography is fabulous at upping the stakes with a movement on stage that is always purposeful and sometimes fittingly frenetic to get across the tremendously tumultuous trajectory of the story. It’s darker, grittier, and more contemporaneous with a scenic design by Dane Laffrey that incorporates the look of a warehouse with illuminated ceiling panels (lighting designer is Josh Epstein). The sound design, too, by Veronika Vorel wows in a reverberating manner, underpinning the growing anticipation.

George Salazar, who is directly off the heels of a stellar run as Michael Mell in “Be More Chill” on Broadway, is everything one could conceive of the waifish Seymour; he bumbles and stumbles in a great demonstration of physical comedy, is unimpeachably innocent, and affects a disposition that is oblivious at first before becoming confident. Mj Rodriguez’s Audrey is a big part of Seymour’s transformation from being an also-ran to a winner. Not to mention, they’re simply sweet together when they’re interacting or vocalizing as a duo, as they do in “Call Back in the Morning” and in the piano and percussion-accented “Suddenly, Seymour.” Of course, as the lead, Salazar is tasked with a large chunk of the singing and he is terrific at emoting a wistfulness and eagerness, whether it’s in the ensemble-supported “Skid Row (Downtown),” “Grow for Me,” or “Closed for Renovation.”

Mj Rodriguez and George Salazar in “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Jenny Graham

Audrey goes from being hapless to one who slowly but surely realizes her worth, which is reflected back to her by way of Seymour’s accepting eyes. Rodriguez, who also stars in FX’s Emmy award-winning “Pose,” is more than just a damsel in distress, as she modernizes her portrayal so that it’s more naturalistic, genuine, and less cartoonish. Even more so, Rodriguez’s vocals are movingly evocative and filled with hope, especially when she belts “Somewhere That’s Green.”

As Audrey’s contemptible yet paradoxically funny boyfriend, Dr. Scrivello, who gets high off the nitrous oxide in a Reddi-Wip canister, Matthew Wilkas (impressing equally as the bum, shop customer, and assorted characters that entice Seymour with offers in the coda) is just what the doctor ordered if diabolical sadism is on the menu. And as opposed to conjuring comparisons to Steve Martin’s depiction of the role, Wilkas adds his own wrinkles to make Scrivello perhaps a combination of Dr. Szell from “Marathon Man” and the unnervingly psychopathic Joker. The classic “dental-care” scene between Seymour and Scrivello is, to no surprise, one of the highlights of this entertainment-packed musical, delivering one hilarious and even unpredictable moment after another.

Unlike the dentist and his saliently evil intentions, Mr. Mushnik is mostly a simpatico character despite opportunities that his avarice can’t quite pass up. There is also something charmingly comforting about him, which Kevin Chamberlin punctuates in his performance. The heartwarming maturation of Mushnik and Seymour’s partnership comes across affectionately, like in “Mushnik and Son,” elevated by a wry humor that will please any of the crowds that see this production.

Matthew Wilkas and George Salazar in “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Giving the most underrated performance is Amber Riley (“Glee”). She lends her agile and versatile voice to Audrey II, who quickly goes from innocent to insidious. There is, additionally, a musicality to Riley’s roars as Audrey II, which retain their melodious quality even though when, during moments of irascibility, they burst outward toward the onstage characters and audience members like a powerful gale. It should also be noted that Audrey II designer and director Sean Cawelti deserves much credit for the puppet’s formidable and nefarious appearance, as does puppet wrangler Sarah Kay Peters, and puppeteers Tyler Bremer, Kelsey Kato, Tim Kopacz, and Paul Turbiak for animating the out-of-this-world, reddish-purple plant. Another skill this team uses is shadow play — boosted by Epstein’s incredible lighting — which effectively caters to the imagination.

Not to be forgotten by any stretch, certainly, are the three amazing woman, or street urchins, who preside over the premise like narrators. Brittany Campbell’s Ronnette, Tickwanya Jones’ Chiffon, and Cheyenne Isabel Wells’ Crystal comprise this mini chorus that belies its smallness by being ever large in its presence. With their undauntedness, crisp dance moves, and get-in-the-groove-inducing harmonies, the urchins enthusiastically set the tone and never relent in making sure the momentum of the show swells as compellingly as Audrey II does.

All in all, there is amazing news not just for the casual theatre fan, but all the musical theatre fanatics who think they’ve experienced every iteration of “Little Shop of Horrors.” The Pasadena Playhouse’s version, which proudly boasts some of the best talent not just in the region but in the country, is dramatically unique and unconventionally enthralling in how it envelops and satiates the observer who greedily wants “more.” This wish is, needless to say, granted without fail via an exemplary feeding of tremendous entertainment.

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