Forget the poinsettias and celebrate this holiday season with an Audrey II. Perennial stage favorite “Little Shop of Horrors” is blooming in the Bay Area for a second time this year (Another production was mounted at the Berkeley Playhouse in the spring) at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley), and for good reason.
With its pop-culture savvy book and lyrics by the late gay writer Howard Ashman, a zippy 1950s pastiche score by Alan Menken and an off-kilter monster movie-meets-“Sesame Street” scenario adapted from Roger Corman’s grindhouse classic, “Little Shop” offers family-friendly entertainment (Let’s say for ages 10 and up) with a full stratum of funny subterranean dirt for adults to dig while the kids remain oblivious.
Chief among the musical’s adult pleasures is the sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello, played here to puffed up perfection by Nick Nakashima. Under the wise direction of Jeffrey Lo, he combines the looming but cartoonish physical presence of a parade float with an endlessly elastic repertoire of facial expressions to simultaneously portray and undermine his potentially problematic character. (Orin physically and psychologically abuses shop girl Audrey, played by Sumi Yu, who effectively conveys a growing confidence as the show progresses).
Late in the second act, Nakashima nearly steals the show altogether, unexpectedly popping up in three smaller roles —one of which is female— in rapid succession. But complete larceny is impossible given the wealth of talent on stage here.
In addition to Yu, whose comic sweetness feels entirely natural, Phil Wong turns in a deliciously self-conscious Seymour, keeping you on his side even when his dorkyness turns to darkness; and the Motown Greek chorus of Ronette, Chiffon and Crystal (Lucca Troutman, Alia Hodge and Naima Alakham) aces their giggle-inducing blend of choreographic slinkiness and editorial side-eye.
If Ashman and Menken, who also wrote the lyrics and music for Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” are role models for teamwork, their standard is lived up to by this production’s puppetry crew. Matthew McAvenue Creations’ design, Brandon Leland’s remarkably expressive manipulation and Katrina Lauren McGraw’s disco diva vocals combine to give Audrey II, the man-eating plant, an alluring vegetal vavoom.
As Mr. Mushnik, Seymour and Audrey’s boss, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias’ turns in another yet another laugh-out-loud performance. He takes a character usually played with the exaggerated shtetl schmaltz of a downtown Tevye and instead pushes the caricature full-on Filipino, complete with thick accent (Think: “Ip I were a rich man!”).
Director Lo’s decision to make this switch from “Oy!” to Pinoy, trading one comic stereotype for another, feels clever given Arias’ background, and inoffensive given the show’s broad brush humor (The character’s name remains Mushnik; Wong’s Chinese-American Seymour’s similarly semitic surname is “Krelborn”).
Unfortunately, in marketing this otherwise top-notch production, Lo and TheatreWorks have effortfully stressed the fact that they’ve set their “Little Shop” in San Francisco’s Chinatown and cast mainly AAPI actors. It’s great to see representation, but other than a bit of set-dressing —a tail-wagging cat clock, a mural of Bruce Lee, Chinese characters on store signage— the shift feels largely irrelevant otherwise.
There’s a little rainbow flag by the cash register and a photo of Harvey Milk (next to a headshot of former SF Giants’ Tim Lincecum) pinned to the flower shop wall; a nice little bit of queer and local representation on stage, yes. But is there any deep meaning? Might Mushnik be growing pansies? I noticed these clever details without a press release extolling their virtues.
“Little Shop” is a smart, silly comedy. TheaterWorks’ noise about its version subtly addressing issues including Chinatown gentrification and domestic violence in the Asian-American community feels overstated and unattractively opportunistic. There’s a theater marketing strategist who deserves a meeting with Audrey II.
‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ through Dec. 24. $30-$100. Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. (877) 662-8978 www.theatreworks.org
Article by Jim Gladstone for The Bay Area Reporter