Mj Rodriguez Plays a Street Smart Audrey in Pasadena Playhouse's 'Little Shop'

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 27, 2019

Mj Rodriguez and George Salazar in "Little Shop of Horrors" at the Pasadena Playhouse through October 20
Mj Rodriguez and George Salazar in "Little Shop of Horrors" at the Pasadena Playhouse through October 20  

The Pasadena Playhouse's original production of the classic Howard Ashman/Alan Menken musical "Little Shop of Horrors" arrives with all of the diversity it can muster. While there are some aspects that don't quite sing, the cast is rooted with talent.

The story about a woefully nerdy florist named Seymour Krelborn (George Salazar) who finds an unusual looking plant that ends up needing human blood to stay alive, "Little Shop of Horrors" has become an iconic musical even before the creators went on to write the music for a trio of enormously successful Disney animated musicals" "The Little Mermaid." "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin." The twist in the Pasadena Playhouse version is that the cast is much more diverse than in previous incarnations. It stars George Salazar ("Be More Chill") as Seymour, Trans actress Mj Rodriguez ("Pose") as Seymour's love interest Audrey, and "Glee's" Amber Riley as Audrey II (the plant that sings). Queer actor and comedian Matthew Wikas plays a number of roles, most notably Dr. Orin Scrivello... D.D.S.

The cast is uniformly excellent with Salazar capturing Seymour's earnestness in a way that's similar to how Rick Moranis played the role in the film version. His stellar voice and nerdy energy is a great counterpoint to Rodriguez who plays Audrey a bit differently than we've seen. Rather than the breathy, ditzy blonde with tight clothes we've seen in the past, Rodriguez plays her a bit more street savvy. She still has that nasty inferiority complex, however, that allows her to be taken advantage of (read: abused) by her dentist boyfriend. The choice is interesting as it changes the dynamics of her character and, quite frankly, makes it a bit sadder. The original approach to how she was played made even the most horrible aspects of her life campy and tongue-in-cheek. Here, we feel truly bad for Rodriguez. It doesn't totally work, but seeing a new take on the character was fascinating none-the-less. And Rodriguez makes the most of it and sings the part very well.

The rest of the cast plays it close to the book, although the biggest change here is the plant itself. No more the standard green Venus flytrap, now it's more of a fuchsia sparkly thing whose "mouth" opens up like one of those creatures from "Stranger Things." While the potted plant itself never grows on stage, at times its tendrils emerge from the darkness to snatch its victims or tease Seymour, but the giant version of the plant is only seen once. It's a great looking creation, but the musical begged for the plant to be front and center. At times it seemed like the plant wasn't really the focus of the show; and when it emerged a something larger than life was confusing, having appeared before this in a small pot in the background. Also as a puppet, it was surprising that its mouth never moved when it speaks.

That said, Amber Riley is a great Audrey and the gender switch (it is usually played by a male soul singer) actually works. (Hey, its name is Audrey II after all.) It was a shame we didn't get to see the actress on stage more. Her star power made me assume we would.

And that's the thing, all of the actors give the show they're all, but some of the directorial choices by Mike Donahue don't always work. Still, I applaud the theatre for combining the familiar with something new. This "Little Shop" is worth a visit, just don't expect a revelatory new version. It's cute, charming, and entertaining; groundbreaking it is not.

"Little Shop of Horrors" plays through October 20th at the Pasadena Playhouse. 39 El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA. For more information and tickets visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.