There are currently two major musical revivals in the Los Angeles area and they have very little in common.
Little Shop of Horrors, the 1982 Off-Broadway adaptation of a Roger Corman B-movie, is a horror comedy about a flower shop clerk’s Faustian bargain with a man-eating plant. It’s completely unconcerned with anything other than getting laughs. It’s aspirations are low and it easily achieves them. The score by Alan Menken and the late, great Howard Ashman is full of catchy tunes that pastiche doo-wop, Motown, and rock songs. They’re undeniably bangers, as the kids would say, and Ashman’s lyrics, in particular, show an intellectual dexterity that are belied by the show’s parodic style.
The Light in the Piazza is a more expansive piece of writing. Based on a 1960 novella, the musical by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas opened on Broadway in 2003 at Lincoln Center with a sonorous, harp-forward orchestration, if that give an indication of the score’s texture. It focuses on a mother and daughter on vacation in Italy; the mother is overprotective, the daughter is developmentally challenged. A Cupidian breeze carries the daughter’s hat into the hands of a handsome Florentine and you can guess what happens after that. It’s aspirations are lofty and it easily achieves them. So, I guess the shows do have something in common: they both work very well, in their own separate ways. Which makes it hard to report that neither of these productions really lives up to the material.
The revival of Little Shop at the Pasadena Playhouse tries to scale back the show’s absurdity and look at the story through a more realistic lens. Director Mike Donahue and scenic designer Dane Laffrey put most of the show under a dingy drop ceiling bespotted with flickering fluorescent lights which goes miles in depicting the desperate straights the characters are under. When the plant brings more business to the shop, they spruce up some of the furnishings, but the foreboding ceiling grid stays exactly the same. Donahue treats Ashman’s book with a barebones honesty that it is not often afforded. The result is that the quality of the writing comes through, but the jokes don’t land and the wild gaps in logical human behavior that are acceptable in a more absurd rendering read here as unbelievable.
Donahue ends the first act with Seymour (George Salazar) dripping in the blood of his first victim. It’s a gruesome, but shattering stage image as you see the meek shop clerk literally wearing his new barbarism. But, towards the end of the musical when the ravenous plant, Audrey II (Amber Riley), is chomping into Seymour’s father figure and his love interest, the blood is nowhere to be seen. Even after Seymour literally pulls Audrey (MJ Rodriguez)’s body from the mouth of the plant, she is unscathed. If this takes place in a real place and if these actions are as real as the production shows us they are in Act I, it needs to continue doing that all the way to the end, especially as the violence radically increases.
Donahue’s production also misses the mark in its handling of the Audrey II puppet. Most productions of Little Shop use around three plant puppets: a small sapling in the beginning, a medium-sized house plant as Audrey II grows, and a gigantic human-devouring monster for the end. Donahue’s concept mystifyingly keeps Audrey II in the middle stage, but gives her the autonomy to increase in size and branch count whenever she likes. Audrey II’s attack sequences are staged with oversized plant mouths and mile-long leafy appendages encircling her victims. The puppetry is reminiscent of Joey’s handlers in War Horse or the Angel Shadows in another Marianne Elliott production, Angels in America. Once she accomplishes her goal, Audrey II shrinks back to tabletop size. It makes little sense for the plot – the whole point is that the plant needs blood to grow, but this one can grow whenever she wants, especially when she’s weak and hungry? Sean Cawelti’s puppet design also doesn’t resemble an actual plant: it’s a shade of fuschia that looks more like a Muppet than something found in nature. In an environment so concerned with realism, the obvious falseness of the plant strips Audrey II of her danger.
Be More Chill’s George Salazar captures Seymour’s nerdy, nervous energy in the beginning of the show, but doesn’t effectively negotiate the turn from mild-mannered shop clerk to a man caught in a murderous cycle. You don’t see the repercussions of his actions register aside from the blood-soaked Act I finale. His singing is pleasant enough, but there’s no movement in his performance. It stays where it is, just checking the necessary boxes without anything new to say about the character.
Kevin Chamberlin sparkles as Mr. Mushnik and, aside from Mj Rodriguez, is most at home in the more truthful, subdued tone of this production. Mushnik is a Borscht Belt role, so all the harder to make it seem like a real person, but Chamberlin hits every beat, tying the larger-than-life comedy into a lifelike persona. Matthew Wilkas shows a side of Orin Scrivello that makes it clear why people might not suspect that he’s such an asshole at first glance. His anger boils over at the drop of a hat and then subsides back into a semi-pleasant, very handsome guy, making it easy to be swayed and distracted by his megawatt smile. It’s a more complicated, nuanced portrayal of the Dentist than we usually see and, like Chamberlin, Wilkas benefits from the production’s pared back style. Amber Riley doesn’t appear in person until the curtain call, but her offstage vocal performance as Audrey II is hilarious and chilling and she’s fully committed to the character, even though you can’t physically see her.
The real miracle of this production, though, is Mj Rodriguez’s performance as Audrey. Rodriguez is so natural in the role, it’s like she was born to play it. Ellen Green’s outsized, huge-voiced performance can’t be matched, but Rodriguez doesn’t have to do that. The spareness of the production lets her make Audrey her own: a transgender woman of color beaten and abused by a man she thinks she deserves. It’s timely and powerful. Rodriguez sits on top of a dumpster with three other women of color and sings Audrey’s plaintive “Somewhere That’s Green” with a rawness that has never touched the song before. Her singing is strong and clear and it reaches the heart like a sharp stab directly out to the audience. It’s a colossal performance and worth all of the production’s missteps to have these few short minutes.
The revival of The Light in the Piazza also drowns under its production. At the opulent Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, as part of Los Angeles Opera’s season, this Piazza comes from London, directed by Daniel Evans. It stars perhaps the most famous American opera singer currently working, Renée Fleming, in a role that won Victoria Clark a Tony Award.
The original Lincoln Center production was almost unbearably lush, leading one to believe that this new staging would capitalize on the grander scale of its new digs and top what was done before. Evans’ production, though, exists on a single set of curved walls that resembles not so much an Italian piazza as a repainted version of the Mamma Mia! set. Designer Robert Jones puts a raked disc in the middle of the playing space causing all the actors to walk up and down it precariously and when they sit on it in chairs, they look like they’re all just waiting to fall on their faces. The rake achieves nothing so much as it makes everyone uncomfortable. The design leaves no room for interesting stage pictures, so all the scenes end up happening in the same general location with the singers all standing around in the same places as the scene that came before. The geography of the space makes little sense – singers will step through a door on one level and all of a sudden be at the top of a winding staircase they then have to navigate while singing. The scenic design doesn’t convey location or help support the narrative.
It’s admirable that Fleming decided to step away from staged repertory opera in the throes of a thriving career to focus on new works and theatre, but Piazza is not well suited for her strengths. Her glorious voice really only falls satisfyingly into the music during the finale, “Fable”, which Fleming has previously recorded. The rest of the score, especially the best song, “Dividing Day”, sits in an awkward place in her voice, right on the break at times, and her tone feels at odds with this kind of singing. Margaret Johnson also has several monologues in the show and Fleming does her best with them, but the inner anguish Margaret is experiencing never comes through. Fleming’s Margaret is fine on the surface, but the subtext and the past life is missing. Moment to moment she hits the beats, but it feels rehearsed and mechanical, not the natural, Southern flow the character requires.
As Clara, Dove Cameron’s singing is adequate, but her tone is too bright and thin and her voice lacks the richness the score requires. Though Clara is, on the surface, an uncomplicated character due to her mental challenge, there needs to be a deep well of life coursing under that. Like Fleming’s performance, Cameron is okay scene to scene, but when Clara unleashes on her mother in the title song, the dam within her doesn’t break. The soul does not pour out and the song isn’t able to reach its potential.
The production’s standouts are Rob Houchen, an English tenor who seems to tear Fabrizio’s heart from his body and offer it to Clara, and Celinde Schoenmaker as his sister in law, Franca. Schoenmaker sings Franca’s aria, “The Joy You Feel” with the right amount of sardonic bite and her soprano and slinky, side-eye physicality meshes with Guettel’s sarcastic melody.
On the whole, the production lacks the rapturousness the material requires. The singers are amplified, but the orchestra is not, so the sound is out of proportion. Guettel’s score needs to wash over you, you need to be submerged in it for it to succeed and this doesn’t happen. There were several moments in the opening performance where the singers and the orchestra, under the direction of Kimberly Grigsby, were out of sync, and a few moments where the group singing wasn’t quite together as well. For an opera production, something like this is paramount. This production could have been at any theatre. Aside from Fleming, there is nothing about it that indicates that it is an operatic production and that’s a missed opportunity to capitalize on the largeness of Guettel and Lucas’ emotional writing. It would fit so well in this setting if only the production could have been amped up to meet it.