Seeing a revival of a favorite musical is a lot like visiting with an old friend. Are they in good shape? A little soft in the middle? Needing some work? Happily, the new production of “Little Shop of Horrors” by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is a joyful reunion, and the Faustian fable of a nerdy flower shop worker secretly yearning for a romantically challenged colleague who yearns for “Somewhere That’s Green” is true to its earthy humor and doo-wop, shang-a-lang roots.
Phil Wong fills amateur botanist and general loser Seymour Krelborn with all the awkward longing the character needs to steal your heart while navigating just enough nervous moral equivocation to earn your wary empathy. Wong recently played the role at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City and he clearly has an affinity for this romantic underdog. He is well matched with Sumi Yu as Audrey, the decision-challenged object of his affections, who engagingly juggles her character’s desperate lack of self-esteem with bursts of sunny shrug-inspiring if improbable optimism.
Hovering over these two opportunity-deprived lovebirds is Lawrence-Michael C. Arias as shop owner Mushnik, a high-strung ersatz parental unit who Arias plays with the delightfully fluttery energy of a nervously earnest tita before slipping over into self-preserving schemer.
Nitrous-oxide addicted “Orin Scrivello…DDS!” is Audrey’s sadistic biker boyfriend and Nick Nakashima makes a number of brave acting choices for this role and the handful of other minor characters the actor in this track usually plays. Not all of them work. His hysterical giggle radiates sublime gas-infused mania, but the darker side of his dental deviant lacks effective menace.
Katrina Lauren McGraw and Brandon Leland are the voice and moves, respectively, of the carnivorous and ever-growing succulent Audrey II. McGraw turns around the usual bass-male vocal boom approach to voicing the plant with an effective palette of purrs, coos, whines, shrieks and icy hauteur to ensure her dinner is served.
Completing the cast are Naima Alakham, Alia Hodge and Lucca Troutman as a vocally powerful, attitude-rich street chorus with arch observations and Motown moves.
Director Jeffrey Lo has uprooted Skid Row and transplanted its musical and botanical residents from New York’s Bowery to San Francisco’s Chinatown. Nothing was lost in that transition, but nothing seems particularly gained.
Putting a new costume on the same actor can be freeing or it can constrain. The latter felt like the case for Arias, a lively stage comic who created well-conceived vocal and physical mannerisms for playing a Mushnik unlike the stereotypically Jewish character in the original show. He was, however, required to hew true to the dialogue and lyrics written in the 1980s based on source material from the 1960s. It was dissonant, but changing the script would have required special permission from the authors, which was not sought for this production.
So, the backdrops of bright paper lanterns, air-drying ducks, and loving murals of Anna May Wong and Bruce Lee courtesy of scenic designer Christopher Fitzer are charming and welcome accents, but do not expand understanding of the material.
Still, it is exciting to have a stage full of diverse actors performing a classic musical without the awkward “All [Insert Cultural Qualifier] Cast!” trappings of days past. Also, no one should underestimate the simple but undeniable power of representation. Seeing many communities successfully telling familiar stories is a critical part of the journey theater in the 21st century is taking, and for that alone the geographic update is meaningful.
Wherever you find your Skid Row, it’s worth the trip to Palo Alto for this rollicking, sassy, night of joyful musical theater nostalgia, but whatever they offer you, don’t feed the plants!
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Little Shop of Horrors” continues through Dec. 24 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $30-$90; visit theatreworks.org or call 877-662-8978.