By Marc Snetiker
September 24, 2019 at 03:01 PM EDT
Jeff Lorch

Little Shop of Horrors always starts with a seed. It just happens that, this time, it has nothing to do with a plant.

The actress Mj Rodriguez, star of FX’s ballroom drama Pose, unwittingly sparked the inception of the Pasadena Playhouse’s new production of Little Shop of Horrors, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s darkly comic ‘80s musical (based on Roger Corman’s 1960 B-movie) about Skid Row florists and the ambitious man-eating plant that eventually destroys them all. Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, the 28-year-old actress was the Venus who fly-trapped the state theater of California into reviving the beloved musical (opening Wednesday) — a humbling surprise that Rodriguez, speaking with EW in rehearsals, says “came out of nowhere in the best way.”

For this floral fable, a trio of creatives in search of collaboration hatched the idea around Rodriguez about a year and a half ago. Director Mike Donahue, best known for helming the world premiere of The Legend of Georgia McBride, was approached by the Pasadena Playhouse’s producing artistic director Danny Feldman to revive Little Shop of Horrors based on a specific vision by Telsey casting director Ryan Tymensky. “[Danny and I] were particularly interested in trying to find a title that felt exciting but lent itself not necessarily to reinvention but an approach with a set of fresh ears, and Ryan had said to him, ‘I’ve always had this crazy dream of doing a production of Little Shop with Mj Rodriguez playing Audrey,’” Donahue recalls to EW. “So they didn’t even know if Mj would want to do this, let alone would even be free to, but the moment they said Mj’s name, the entire thing just made sense to me.”

Rodriguez became a notable Hollywood name this past year, and those familiar have shown themselves eager to work with the actress amid her rapid ascent on the wings of Pose, Ryan Murphy’s FX drama about Manhattan’s legendary queer ballroom scene. In a cast predominantly comprised of transgender actors, Rodriguez leads the series as Blanca, the indomitable house mother of a makeshift family of LGBTQ artists finding their way in the tumultuous New York of the ‘80s. Prior to Pose, Rodriguez had built a sturdy resume of TV and stage roles, but it was a stint as Angel in the 2011 Off Broadway revival of Rent that won her a Clive Barnes Award and recognition among rising stage directors like Donahue.

The two met last December for a three-and-a-half hour coffee date—with no knowledge, even, of the other casting decisions (like Be More Chill’s George Salazar as nebbish hero Seymour or Glee’s Amber Riley as the plant Audrey II) that would eventually make the Playhouse’s production the buzzy Los Angeles rival to the Jonathan Groff-led revival concurrently running Off Broadway in New York. Instead, Donahue and Rodriguez spent their first meeting focused solely on Audrey, her history, and how to plot a small casting revolution in a flower shop.

“Audrey is usually played by a Caucasian cis woman, and that’s not to take anything away from the many amazing women who have played this role and done a wonderful job, but now she’s being played by a black woman, a woman of color, and also a trans woman of color, so already there are so many elements to the character that can be brought out now that she’s a part of a different sector of life,” Rodriguez tells EW. “I love diving into dark areas — naturally, I love drama — and I saw Audrey as the perfect character to do that with. So many people see or portray her in a certain way, but I saw so much realism in her. I saw somebody who was being abused, who was being taken advantage of, and yet still had a lot of heart in believing she could get out simply by dreaming.”

Jeff Lorch

Eschewing the cheetah preconceptions of Ellen Greene’s iconic take on the role, Rodriguez’s Audrey, looking no older than Rodriguez herself at 28, exudes a youthful innocence that nevertheless feels deeply live-in. That history is among the strokes Donahue hopes will paint the scene of an Audrey already in the midst of great change, even if audiences meet her in the sticky mire of an abusive relationship with a dentist (Matthew Wilkas). “The thing about Audrey is she is somebody who has this palpable, visceral fragility, but she is also a woman who has incredible strength, which Mj and I talked about a lot,” recalls Donahue. “You get a few little clues about what her life has been like — that she worked at a place called The Gutter, that she had to wear a particular kind of outfit there and did things that she isn’t proud of — and you get little clues to the kinds of relationship patterns that she has fallen into. But that said, that woman is not a victim. Yes, she’s still dating [the dentist] at the top of the show, but she’s also gotten out of one world, and gotten a job in the flower shop, and it takes somebody who has a bit of a steel rod for a spine and who is a survivor to be able to do that. Mj has that vulnerability and also that strength and power, which can both coexist at the same time in this really incredible way.”

Rodriguez draws a portion of Audrey’s power from the production’s galvanizing casting, which moves away from the tendency of the most mainstream versions of Little Shop to peg cisgender Caucasian actors for the leading roles. “George, our Seymour, is of Filipino and Latino descent. Audrey is of African-American and Puerto Rican descent. The plant is a woman, and it’s always stereotypically played by a male,” Rodriguez points out. “These are new things that I feel like people in the audience need to see, to see that there are so many ways that you can bring life to these characters and not just by a specific role played by a specific race.” Donahue says the Playhouse’s approach to casting was predominantly an effort to ground the ‘60s-set show in a modern Manhattan melting-pot: “New York right now is incredibly diverse, and we wanted the world of our show and our rehearsal room to feel like the world that we all live in. But we’re also trying to ask, if we do take what’s happening in this show at face value — if we believe that these are real people living in a real world — what kind of person actually makes these choices?”

Under Donahue’s direction, more than a few plot points in Little Shop have taken on deeper, perhaps more realistic (all things considered) shapes. For instance, the relationship between Seymour and his botanical terror Audrey II, voiced from off-stage by Olivier Award-winning powerhouse Riley, has curiously morphed into a quasi-maternal relationship. “One of Amber’s immediate insights was that this guy’s never actually had a mother, so [for the plant to be] channeling that energy and preying upon that and finding ways to manipulate and maneuver him by unlocking what kind of presence he needs in his life… I had never thought of that because of how the plant has always been cast, but Amber had that really incredible insight almost immediately,” says Donahue, adding, “Plus, her instrument is just fucking incredible. She sits in rehearsal and barely opens her mouth and the entire room shakes.”

But another significant element the Playhouse production stands to magnify, if indirectly, is the physical abuse Audrey endures by the hand of her boyfriend. With the casting of a trans woman of color, the cisgender Audrey’s story takes on a meaningful new layer for audience members aware of the real-world implications of the violence facing members of Rodriguez’s community. With at least 26 reported homicides of transgender people — the majority women of color — in 2018 and at least 19 so far this year, according to the HRC, violence against trans women has become a national point of discourse, with presidential candidates even voicing their alarm as part of their public platforms. Donahue explains, “The domestic violence and abuse that occurs in the production, regardless of who is playing that role, at this moment in time in our world, is something that has to be taken seriously. But particularly given what a big issue violence towards trans people and especially trans people of color is right now, the responsibility for all of us working on this show was heavy and it was important that we not try to pretend that it’s not happening. That’s a part of who she is, and that’s a part of the show, so it became important to acknowledge that.” Donahue points out that certain unsettling moments appear in the script (which has not been altered) in which Audrey’s trauma is occasionally wielded by Audrey herself as a punchline. “There are jokes made about it in the piece, but there’s a way to tonally approach them where it feels real. People use humor to cover up pain and to cope and to move through uncomfortable situations all the time. That’s an incredibly human thing to do. So if Audrey makes a joke about it — and you think, how can she be making a joke? — that’s actually a real way to move through the pain and discomfort of talking about that with her coworkers whom she sees every day.”

Jeff Lorch

In any event, Rodriguez is decidedly striving for something more universal with her Audrey — something not derived from social implications, audience expectations, or even presupposed imitations of any of the more famous portrayals of Audrey (which Rodriguez is very vocal about respecting). “Believe it or not, I don’t know an Audrey in my life, so this is something that I’m really stepping out of my comfort zone with,” she says. “I’ve never been in an extremely abusive relationship. I don’t know other people who have been in abusive relationships. But nor do I know people who work at a flower shop! I’m drawing inspiration from what I’ve learned, what I’ve read, what I’ve seen. I pull my sources from there and just try to do my best.” To play Blanca on Pose, Rodriguez sought inspiration from her mother, but here, “I’m not pulling from my mom anymore. This is something that I’m doing on my own, completely on my own. I’m working for myself on this one.”

Collective and collaborative as the theater is, it’s also proven to be a space of great change for Rodriguez as a creative individual. “I think back on Rent and it was the place I found my worth, I found my womanhood, I found myself, and I found comfort in being a performer and an artist,” she says. It may be too early to call Little Shop another game-changer for the actress, but in Audrey, Rodriguez has already seized on the opportunity to call upon her R&B artistry and live inside a character whose dreams of tranquility — and whose New Jersey roots, for that matter — are not too far from her own. “I’ve always been the kind of girl who’s wanted the husband and the kids and the nice lawn out front and the beautiful greenery,” she beams. “I mean yes, the images [of “Somewhere That’s Green”] may be a bit different now in modern times, but there are still so many parts of those lyrics that ring true. To me, there are just so many realistic aspects to this — not just on Audrey’s part, but many of the characters’ — and so it really feels like we’re diving down some territory that might have never been dived down.”

In doing so, perhaps a plant won’t be the only thing to grow each night.

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