Reviving the Broadway musical "Little Shop of Horrors," TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is adding a twist to the production this holiday season; it's transplanting the setting to San Francisco's Chinatown, offering an updated, multicultural perspective about the human toll of capitalism.
"It's a satire and a cautionary tale about greed and about the issues of living life under a scarcity model," Director Jeffrey Lo said. "And so, with that in mind, I thought San Francisco's Chinatown was perfect. Because, for me, San Francisco is a poster child of what happens to a vibrant and artistically whole community when gentrification hits that area."
The musical tells the story of Seymour (Phil Wong), who brings fame and fortune to the small, rundown florist shop where he works after he accidentally raises a spectacular houseplant. But there's a catch: the plant has a secret appetite for blood.
Lo teamed up with scenic designer and longtime collaborator Christopher Fitzer, and the two worked closely together to get the show off the ground. Hired on a Friday, Fitzer said he and Lo were in Chinatown the following Wednesday, visiting shops and taking photographs of the neighborhood for design ideas.
The production's scenery is a tapestry of Chinese architectural and stylistic elements, Fitzer said. The older red brick buildings immediately drew his eye, as did the quirky configurations of HVACs and pipes wrapping around buildings. Hyper-stylized elements traditionally associated with Chinatown, like pagoda rooftops, also made it into the set.
The signage was important as well, particularly for Lo who wanted to capture the pairing of English words and Chinese characters side by side, a visual cue that references immigrants' experiences of not needing to speak English in Chinatown. The fonts used on the signs, which replicate fonts in Chinatown, also reveal the production's close attention to detail.
The atmosphere of Chinatown's alleyways played a significant role in the design elements too. The original 1960 film was set in a New York City neighborhood called Skid Row. Fitzer created a parallel environment for the TheatreWorks production, with the backdrop revealing a vibrant but less prosperous part of Chinatown.
While he elevated certain design features, like alleyways, Fitzer downplayed and altered other visual elements that did not translate well into a theater set design. The musical's focal point — a flower shop — is very different from what he encountered in Chinatown. "A lot of them are white, like supremely white, which is beautiful and shows off the flowers very well. But not great for theater — a big white block," Fitzer said.
The close-knit community feel of Chinatown meanwhile stayed intact. Observing interactions in Chinatown, Fitzer treated the neighborhood as a living entity and not as an ahistorical artifact. The buildings depicted on stage, which Lo described as downtrodden but well-loved, reflect the struggles of the characters resisting the destabilizing effects of gentrification — a story that resonates with the real-life struggles of Chinatown's residents.
"When you look specifically at San Francisco's Chinatown, you see a community that's fighting tooth and nail against gentrification," Lo said. "They want to keep what makes their community diverse; they want to keep what makes their community unique and vibrant, and they want to essentially keep their culture alive amongst all this gentrification happening around them."
Another key piece to the production is the casting. Approximately half of the performers are of Asian descent. The Chinatown setting opens up new possibilities for thinking about cultural identities and relationships, Lo said. Even though the text is the same, it takes on different meanings and inflections with a multicultural cast.
"Parental relationships hit a certain way to the Asian American community and having immigrant parents speak to you in a certain way, it just sounds and feels so different," Lo said.
The reimagined setting and casting also helps audience members from diverse backgrounds see themselves better represented in theater, something that does not happen often enough, Lo said. "It celebrates what makes us different and unique and celebrates what makes us similar," he added.
"Little Shop of Horrors" is playing Nov. 30-Dec. 24 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. The production offers ASL Interpretation Dec. 13; open captioning Dec. 18 and 21 and audio description Dec. 17 and 23-24. Assisted listening devices are available at every performance. Tickets start at $30. 877-662-8978 or theatreworks.org.