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Entertainment & Arts

How Mj Rodriguez of ‘Pose’ became the leading lady of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’

Mj Rodriguez, star of the TV series “Pose,” outside Pasadena Playhouse, where she plays Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“Pose” star Mj Rodriguez outside Pasadena Playhouse, where she plays Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The actress Mj Rodriguez, best known as Blanca in the FX series “Pose,” invited a reporter into her dressing room at the Pasadena Playhouse, where she’s starring in a revival of the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” opening Wednesday.

If you have seen Rodriguez on “Pose,” dressed in the exuberant fashions of New York’s 1980s underground ball culture, you might expect her to be 11 feet tall. In person, in flats and a close-fitting casual cotton dress, she is just a hint above average height, with the fluid grace of a dancer. Her cheekbones are possibly even more ferocious in real life. Her flawless skin, bare of makeup, just seems unfair.

Like Blanca, Rodriguez has a distinctively motherly aura, at once warm and tough. She plumped the cushions she’d brought in to make her dressing room — a narrow cubicle just off Pasadena Playhouse’s luxurious green room — a little homier. She kept an eye on a standing mirror that threatened to topple on the reporter’s head. It was clear Rodriguez wasn’t going to let that happen.

It was also clear that she’s a gifted raconteur who can turn the most mundane observation into a story. In L.A., she pointed out, the sun is almost always out and at full glare. But in Newark, N.J., where she grew up and where she still lives, she said, “The clouds are there, and like the sun peeks in, every so often, like, ‘Hey, girl, I just wanted to say hi. I’m gonna close these clouds real quick, give you a little rain.’ ”

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Rodriguez’s star is rising so quickly that it’s tough to get a meeting with her these days, but “Little Shop of Horrors” director Mike Donahue managed the feat last December at a Starbucks in New York. He told her he was thinking of doing the musical about a bloodthirsty plant. As Rodriguez recalls, Donahue began to ask, “How would you feel about playing ...”

Rodriguez finished his sentence: “The plant?”

But Donahue wanted her as Audrey. The leading lady.

Mj Rodriguez as Audrey and George Salazar as Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” at Pasadena Playhouse.
Mj Rodriguez as Audrey and George Salazar as Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” at Pasadena Playhouse.
(Jenny Graham)

Rodriguez had grown up watching the 1986 film version of “Little Shop,” starring Ellen Greene as Audrey, the platinum blonde with the tacky fashion sense, who teeters into the skid row flower shop where she works in kitten heels and a plunging neckline. The Audrey with a heart of gold.

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The movie was a favorite of Rodriguez’s mother, whose name happens to be Audrey. So the offer had a fateful feeling.

Rodriguez immediately said yes.

“But in my head,” she said, “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, those are some big shoes to fill. And also I’m a different Audrey. I’m not the Ellen Greene; I’m not the Kerry Butler; I’m not the other Audreys that have been played. I’m a very different Audrey. I’m a woman of color. And that scared me a bit.”

“Little Shop” isn’t exactly an obscure musical, having been a staple of summer stock and high schools since its off-Broadway premiere in 1982, but it’s experiencing something of a mainstage resurgence right now, with two big new productions on opposite coasts. Donahue’s in Pasadena stars Rodriguez opposite George Salazar (fresh from his success in Broadway’s “Be More Chill”), with “Glee” actress Amber Riley as the plant. Off-Broadway, Jonathan Groff and Tammy Blanchard are playing Seymour and Audrey under Michael Mayer’s direction.

George Salazar (“Be More Chill”), Mj Rodriguez (“Pose”) and Amber Riley (“Glee”) bring a fresh take to the musical about a man-eating plant.

Is there any reason this campy rock ’n’ roll horror musical has recaptured our attention? Surely there’s nothing especially pertinent to us in the plight of broke Seymour Krelborn (played by Rick Moranis in the movie adaptation), who adopts an odd-looking plant, different from every other plant he’s ever seen, which seems like his ticket to prosperity but turns out to be a flesh-eating alien intent on destroying the world.

Revisiting a beloved classic often involves re-envisioning it, which was the Pasadena Playhouse team’s aim from the get-go. As Donahue reassured Rodriguez, it was OK that she was a different Audrey. They were looking for a different Audrey.

Of course, they all adored Greene. “Her performance in that role is stunning and masterful and super-downtowny and weird,” Donahue said. “But we have that performance.”

Added Danny Feldman, the playhouse’s artistic director: “Greene’s Audrey is brilliant, so defining that everyone I’ve ever seen in the role is sort of paying tribute to it.”

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But Feldman was looking through his old copies of the script — which, as a lifelong fan, he’s produced several times his career, beginning in college. He came across an actor’s copy, printed in 1985, that included a note by the book writer and lyricist.

“Ashman said that although the play itself is campy, it works best when the characters are real people,” Feldman said. “And I sort of thought, I’ve never seen that production, where they were real people. That sort of started this journey. So we got a bunch of really smart, talented theater people in a room, who love the show, and we’re sort of saying how else can we look at it. Mj came out of the rethinking. We built the show around her in many ways.”

Including its performance schedule, Feldman said. Traditionally, the playhouse has its openings Sunday nights. For “Little Shop,” opening night was pushed to the Wednesday after the Emmy Awards, because they figured Rodriguez would have a conflict. Although she and the four other transgender actresses on “Pose” weren’t nominated for Emmys — much to fans’ dismay — their show was up for drama series, and their costar Billy Porter was nominated for lead actor (and he won).

Mj Rodriguez on the purple carpet arriving at the 2019 Emmys.
Mj Rodriguez arriving at the Emmy Awards on Sunday in Los Angeles.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“My New York friends were like, ‘You’re shutting the show down for Emmys?’ ” recalled Feldman, who was based in New York before taking over the artistic leadership of the playhouse in 2017. “Yes. It’s a very L.A. thing to do. But it was really about making sure we could make Mj happen. I think she’s so special.”

Rodriguez’s leading man, George Salazar, agreed.

“She is a generous scene partner. She is just there with you,” he said. “It’s just two human beings who genuinely like each other who are playing these characters who feel lost in a world that stacks the odds against them, and, together, they find the ability to dream beyond what their ceiling of dreaming has been their whole lives.”

Salazar said his job was to create a Seymour with whom the audience can fall in love right out of the gate, despite the fact that he does some terrible things. “It’s also important that the audience love Audrey and root for Audrey, and I’m happy to share that the audience will 100% love Mj’s Audrey.”

Fall theater season highlights for Los Angeles include a musical version of “Almost Famous,” Bill Irwin in “On Beckett,” a revival of August Wilson’s “Jitney” and a new stand-up show by comic Mike Birbiglia.

Donahue said he wanted an Audrey who has both vulnerability and strength.

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“It’s a tricky thing to find right now,” he said. “Somebody who has that steel rod for a spine. And Mj has that.”

The team had agreed on Rodriguez for the role long before they knew if she’d be interested, so it was a relief when she said yes. Still, even with Feldman and Donahue’s encouragement, Rodriguez was initially hesitant to make Audrey her own.

“I mean, Ellen Greene is my everything,” Rodriguez said. “She is the bomb diggity. But now that I’ve been in the hustle and bustle of the show, I’ve gotten my own story line of who Audrey is. And I think my Audrey is pretty set.”

Mj Rodriguez as Blanca in the first season of “Pose.”
Mj Rodriguez as Blanca in the first season of “Pose.”
(JoJo Whilden/FX )

One obvious departure will be her wardrobe. The costumes hanging on Rodriguez’s rack were notably lacking in plunging necklines and leopard print. They looked like modest, practical, earth-toned separates.

“Yeah, they’re not the traditional Audrey,” Rodriguez said. The clothes are down to earth, for a woman going to work every single day.

Is Rodriguez’s Audrey a trans woman?

No, she said. At least not overtly.

“It’s great that a trans woman is playing a cisgender character,” Rodriguez said, “but I don’t think people should just see it as a cisgender character or as a trans character ... This show is speaking to all women who go through what Audrey has gone through: Her mama being poor; her dad leaving early; meeting an abusive man ‘in the gutter.’

“I think I’m speaking to every single-ass woman on this Earth, and what they have gone through with stupid men.”

Furthermore, Rodriguez wants this show to prove that she’s not limited to trans roles.

“I’m always going to have to speak for my community, because I’m a part of it,” she said. “I’m trans. But that’s me — that’s not the character that I play. I play trans characters, I play cis characters, I can play monsters, I can play cartoon characters. I can do anything I put my mind to. My goal is to play a character, and have people see the character.

“We’re releasing Mj from this story. Just like we’re releasing Blanca. Blanca is on vacation.”

'Little Shop of Horrors'
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 20

Tickets: $25 and up

Info: (626) 356-7529, PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours (one intermission)

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