If “Sweeney Todd” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” mated, the offspring would look something like “Little Shop of Horrors,” the off-off-Broadway camp-thriller musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken that became a long-running off-Broadway hit in the 1980s.
Based on the 1960 Roger Corman crackpot B-movie that acquired a cult following, the musical was itself popularized by Frank Oz’s 1986 film version. Oz was required to soften the ending of this Faustian sci-fi fable about a clerk at a flower shop who makes a pact with a carnivorous, talking plant that promises fame, fortune and romantic bliss for the price of his soul and flora world domination. But the killer zaniness was performed (as it was onstage) at full throttle.
A new production of “Little Shop of Horrors” that opened Wednesday at Pasadena Playhouse takes an entirely different tack. The goofiness hasn’t been banished in this crisp revival starring George Salazar as Seymour, the nerdy flower shop drone with an unusual horticultural flair, and Mj Rodriguez as Audrey, the delicate co-worker he would like to rescue from a malignant relationship. But this comic book tale is treated with more realism than usual, and the leads draw out the full humanity of their characters.
The production, directed by Mike Donahue, may not make a case for “Little Shop” as a top-tier American musical, but it’s by far my favorite rendition of the show. The tenderness between Salazar (who stole his scenes as a lovable loser in Broadway’s “Be More Chill”) and Rodriguez (a breakout star of FX’s “Pose”) has such texture that, even when the staging goes Grand Guignol as the plant demands fresh human blood to sustain itself, a sweet vulnerability prevails.
The focus of the staging is on the actors. Other than the deceptively adorable robotic plant (part of Sean Cawelti’s puppet direction and design), the scenic imagination is bland to the point of dreary. The fluorescent light flashes that harbinger the special effects proudly announce a low-budget aesthetic.
“Little Shop” doesn’t need the mega-spectacle of 1980s Broadway. What it must have is singing strong enough to motor a book by Ashman that occasionally bogs down in its own excessive zeal. Fortunately, the vivacious doo-wop of Menken, best known for his award-lavished scores for Walt Disney musicals, is given quite the lift by a trio of magnificent singers (Brittany Campbell, Tickwanya Jones and Cheyenne Isabel Wells), who serve as the show’s all-seeing chorus.
Another powerhouse, Amber Riley (formerly of “Glee”), voices the role of the diabolical plant, which Seymour named Audrey II (or Twoey for short) after his secret sweetheart, who’s in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist (given a narcissistic slant by Matthew Wilkas). Riley’s R&B thunder, which doesn’t take no for an answer, turns this unusual-looking potted purple flytrap into a symbol for a murderous appetite that cannot be sated.
Although the musical is clearly set in the early 1960s, this is a modern take on “Little Shop.” Even as the score revels in Motown-era nostalgia, the production keeps us in the present through a diverse cast that includes an actress who is transgender taking on the role of Audrey and making us see her shattered pieces in a new light.
I’ve never until now fully appreciated Ashman’s lyrics, but Salazar and Rodriguez sing their emotional subtext as well as the word. They bring the vocal heat when needed in their climactic romantic duet, “Suddenly Seymour,” but mostly they find it in their characters’ yearnings and shame.
The skid row setting, though not a central element of Dane Laffrey’s scenic design, has seeped into the actors’ bones. Seymour was an orphan until Mr. Mushnik (a bagel-chomping, wholly real and unerringly wonderful Kevin Chamberlin) took him in and gave him a menial job, meatloaf and water, and every other Sunday off. The reality of limited horizons is apparent in the way Salazar’s Seymour snaps out of one of his daydreams and stoically resumes his daily drudgery as though no other possibility could ever exist.
Rodriguez’s Audrey bears the guilt of having been rescued from streets that aren’t a metaphor but a fate for those who can’t find a corner of safety in the world. Her dream of a tract home with “plastic on the furniture” and “Pine-Sol-scented air,” as she sings in “Somewhere That’s Green,” is moving in its simple, unsatiric honesty. Playing Audrey without exaggeration deepens the poignancy of the musical’s dark comedy.
A more intimate space might allow “Little Shop” to better showcase its shoestring charms. The puppetry grows ponderously abstract as Audrey II grows larger, thanks to the human flesh Seymour guiltily feeds it. The burlesque required of Wilkas as he steps through a revolving door of characters, each one at least as outlandish as the vicious dentist he brings gleefully to life, seems like a vestige of the show’s fringe theater roots.
But Donahue’s revival vibrates with virtuoso singing and authentic heart. After its grand success with “Ragtime,” Pasadena Playhouse is on a musical roll with this “Little Shop.” Here, the secret of success lies in the chemistry between Salazar and Rodriguez, along with the veteran magic of Chamberlin, the vocal prowess of Riley and a musical trio that deserves a gig next summer at the Hollywood Bowl.
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 and 10 minutes (one intermission)