Skip to main content

Suddenly, See More: A Big Little Show of Devourers

Ed Rampell: Pasadena Playhouse’s toe tapping, playful production of Little Shop of Horrors is a thoroughly delicious, delightful musical comedy with macabre sci fi elements, making this ideal entertainment for the Halloween season.
little shop of horrors

Brittany Campbell, Mj Rodriguez, Cheyenne Isabel Wells and Tickwanya Jones (Photo: Jenny Graham)

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS Theater Review

Pasadena Playhouse’s toe tapping, playful production of Little Shop of Horrors is a thoroughly delicious, delightful musical comedy with macabre sci fi elements, making this ideal entertainment for the Halloween season. Quickly after the curtain lifts a Greek chorus in the form of a Motown- like trio sets the scene and rocks the stage, which includes what appears to be a Cadillac. The winsome threesome includes Broadway, opera and screen veteran Brittany Campbell as Ronnette and newcomers Tickwanya Jones and Cheyenne Isabel Wells as Chiffon and Crystal. Ms. Wells’ skintight pants seem spray painted onto her and the three singers/dancers are as lovely to look at as they are to listen to, as they dance choreo by Will B. Bell.

Pasadena Playhouse’s toe tapping, playful production of Little Shop of Horrors is a thoroughly delicious, delightful musical comedy with macabre sci fi elements.

They are habitués of Skid Row, which - like in L.A. - is an impoverished part of town, where (unlike L.A. - at least as far as I know) a flower shop on the skids is located. There, down-on-their-heels Seymour Krelborn (Broadway and Off-Broadway performer George Salazar) and Audrey (Mj Rodriguez, who plays Blanca on the FX series Pose) toil amidst the soil of Mr. Mushnik’s (three-time Tony nominee Kevin Chamberlin) struggling botanical garden.

Although lacking a formal education, the orphaned Seymour has a gift with botany and raises an unusual, uncategorized flower he has discovered. As conceived in this iteration of Shop (presumably by puppet designer and director Sean Cawelti), initially the plant actually looks like a fool’s cap, one of those caps with bells worn by court jesters in medieval times. Secretly enamored of his co-worker, Seymour names the flower Audrey II, who is voiced offstage by Amber Riley, a Golden Globe winner for the TV series Glee, whose stage and screen credits include a Laurence Olivier Award winning performance in Dreamgirls at London’s West End and in a Tyler Perry movie.

Kevin Chamberlin and George Salazar

Kevin Chamberlin and George Salazar

To make a long story short Audrey II’s otherworldly singularity brings Seymour and the flower shop fame and prosperity. As his confidence blooms he woos Audrey - but as in all classic love stories (not to mention Harlequin romances) there are obstacles in his way. The low self-esteem Audrey is already involved in a relationship with the abusive Dr. Orin Scrivello (Matthew Wilkas, who played Peter Parker on Broadway in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and, according to the playbill, will co-star with RuPaul in an upcoming Netflix comedy series), who has the perfect job for a sadist to submimate his murderous impulses.

But an even bigger hurdle for Seymour to overcome is Audrey II’s growth, as she blossoms into a sort of Venus flytrap on steroids, whose insatiable appetite causes, shall we say, the florist’s green thumb to turn red. All this is setup in the first act, which has more than double the number of songs than Act II has.

Nevertheless, my favorite number is performed in the second act, the rather moving, tender love song “Suddenly, Seymour.” Although the aforementioned trio does get into the act, “Suddenly” is more or less a duet between Seymour and Audrey as they finally recognize and express their love for one another. Ashman’s poignant lyrics include the botanist crooning: “Suddenly Seymour, is here to provide you
With sweet understanding, Seymour’s your friend.”

After recalling her hard luck childhood and troubled relationships, Audrey responds: “Suddenly, Seymour is standing beside me, He don’t give me orders, he don’t condescend.” The number is beautifully performed by the thesps and a live orchestra conducted by keyboardist John Gentry Tennyson, as two abandoned children finally find compassion and solace with one another as adults. Suddenly, with their discovery of true love, Audrey and Seymour see more.

What could possibly go wrong?

Cheyenne Isabel Wells, Brittany Campbell and Tickwanya Jones

Cheyenne Isabel Wells, Brittany Campbell and Tickwanya Jones

Well, Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues have nothing on Audrey II, who has become the thirsty flower from hell with a boundless bloodlust. A quartet of puppeteers bring the extraterrestrial plant alive, along with Cawelti’s handiwork, Josh Epstein’s lighting design, Veronika Vorel’s sound design, and two-time Tony nominee Dane Laffrey’s scenic design. The latter includes something I don’t recall ever seeing before onstage - a ceiling that ascends and descends to become part of the set. It reminded me a bit of Orson Welles’ visual wizardry, as he broke new ground (so to speak) by shooting ceilings in 1941’s Citizen Kane.

Speaking of which, Mj Rodriguez is shattering glassy gender ceilings with her portrayal of Audrey. This is the first time this critic has (knowingly) seen a trans thespian in a lead role on the L.A. boards. Bravo!

This is an extremely enjoyable revival of the 1982 Off-Off-Broadway show that opened at the intimate WPA Theatre in Chelsea, created by Tony and Oscar winning composer Alan Menken (Aladdin), with book and lyrics by Oscar winner Howard Ashman (The Little Mermaid). A hit, Shop moved uptown to the Orpheum on the Great White Way (it is also currently being revived Off-Broadway at Manhattan’s Westside Theatre). The stage musical was adapted for the screen in 1986 with a script by Ashman and directed by Frank Oz, with Steve Martin as the sadistic Orin. These productions were in turn based on the 1960 nonmusical film version co-directed by Roger Corman, screenplay by Charles B. Griffith (a B-picture specialist whose credits also include 1966’s The Wild Angels), wherein a 23-year-old Jack Nicholson had a scene stealing role as a masochistic dental patient who happily eschews Novocain. (See here.)

Along with all the mayhem and merriment, Shop is a rumination on the American mania for “success,” and the cost of fame and fortune. What price gory? Fitzgerald’s not-so-great Gatsby needed to be rich in order to pursue Daisy - but does Seymour have to be an in the money celebrity to romance Audrey? Or is love enough?

Stage stalwart Mike Donohue adeptly directs his talented ensemble and crew, and music director Darryl Archibald (whose mellifluous melodies I last heard at Pasadena Playhouse’s sublime Ragtime revival) does Menken proud. The opening night, sold out crowd also deserves to be mentioned as an especially appreciative audience that gave the cast and crew a standing ovation. This Shop put me in mind of another classic musical, Candide, as the enlightened title character realizes at the end: “We must all cultivate our gardens” - although hopefully with a lot less blood, sweat and tears than Seymour and company shed.

Little Shop of Horrors is being performed through Oct. 20 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. at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. Info: (626)356-7529; www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based critic/film historian Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.) Rampell is moderating the “Enter Stage Left: Theater, Film and TV for a Better World” panel at the Left Coast Forum (see: https://leftcoastforum.org/enter-stage-left/).