When looking for a musical to enjoy during the holiday season, a dark, doo-wop-styled comedy based on a man-eating plant might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s performance of “Little Shop of Horrors,” set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is a must-watch that leaves one pondering societal issues, reflections especially pertinent during this supposed time of joy.
The show started with a doo-wop trio (Naima Akakham, Alia Hodge and Lucca Troutman) in sequined dresses and matching vibrant heels, serving as the show’s Greek chorus and introducing the audience to the setting. The story follows meek florist Seymour (Phil Wong) who works in an unsuccessful flower shop run by Mr. Mushnik (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias). Wanting to save coworker Audrey (Sumi Yu) from her sadist boyfriend Orin (Nick Nakashima), Seymour cultivates a human-eating plant, creatively named Audrey II (voiced by Katrina Lauren McGraw and manipulated by Brandon Leland), he must decide what he will risk for fame and fortune.
The novelty of this performance was the resetting of the location, which was changed from New York’s Skid Row to San Francisco’s Chinatown. Although the script and lyrics remained identical to the original, the leading actors were all Asian-American while the singing trio were all Black. The focus of the show shifted correspondingly from a poor white area in the 1960s to a modern day Chinatown plagued with gentrification, whose residents fought to maintain its cultural identity.
The production quality of “Little Shop” was top-notch from the start. The set was incredibly detailed and mobile: a rotating turntable set of the flower shop showcased both the interior and exterior of the store. Behind it, the facade of a Chinatown building with shirts and roasted ducks dangling from windows immersed the audience in the cultural and geographical setting. The props too, were exceptional: the show used puppets designed by Matthew McAvene Creations to represent Audrey II, a plant that moved in life-like ways. The colorful, contemporary costumes were designed by Fukimo Bielefeldt. Bielefeldt got her start in costume design when taking a class at Stanford, where her husband was teaching.
The audience was warned before the show of potential lighting difficulties, but aside from a few moments where mics cut out, everything ran smoothly.
Aside from the casting and set, small changes in blocking and props accentuated the culture. In the opening scene, Mushnik sat behind a large newspaper and nibbled from a Chinese food takeout container. The same dance number includes a broomstick variation of tinikling, a Filipino style of dance in which performers jump over wooden poles.
With elements such as the absurdity of a talking plant, a sadist’s dream career as a dentist and ridiculous members of the press, “Little Shop’s” humor is known for being overly theatrical. TheaterWorks’ show had spectacular deliveries of the music and dances despite the plot being odd and not incredibly deep. The screenplay itself is not incredibly compelling: the love story between Seymour and Audrey isn’t convincing, and the tragedies aren’t heart-wrenching. Still, the show was fun, wacky, energetic and amusing. It made the subtle question about the changing identity of Chinatown feel accessible to a diverse audience.
If you’re looking for a performance that explores Asian-American cultural identity with elements of the supernatural, “Little Shop of Horrors” could be the perfect show for you this holiday season.
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Little Shop of Horrors” will be playing at Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto from November 30th through December 24.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.