Since it opened in October 2019, Michael Mayer’s well-received “Little Shop of Horrors” revival has drawn quite the handsome string of leading men: Jonathan Groff was the first to step into Seymour Krelborn’s Converse sneakers, and he was followed by Gideon Glick and Jeremy Jordan. This reflects the casting evolution of the character, a painfully shy plant geek. Not many roles have been played by both Rick Moranis (in the show’s 1986 movie adaptation) and Jake Gyllenhaal (in a 2015 concert production).
When asked about joining this, ahem, hot streak, Conrad Ricamora burst out laughing. “I played a nerdy IT guy for six years on ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ so I don’t know if there’s a full consensus that I’m in the Jake Gyllenhaal Hall of Fame of Hot Actors,” he said.
Since Jan. 11, Ricamora, 42, has been taking center stage at the Westside Theater, and while he displays serious comic muscle, he also taps into the character’s painful loneliness. When he sings “Someone show me a way to get outta here / ’Cause I constantly pray I’ll get outta here” in the opening number, the ache is palpable.
This versatility won’t be news to those who have seen him onstage before — yes, Oliver stans, he can sing! There was the way Ricamora would summon a shamanic intensity as the magnetic political leader Ninoy Aquino in “Here Lies Love,” the David Byrne and Fatboy Slim hit show that opened at the Public Theater in 2013. And then there was his ardent romanticism as the doomed Burmese scholar and lover Lun Tha in the 2015 Lincoln Center production of “The King and I” — oh, those duets with Ashley Park’s Tuptim!
Chatting after a recent rehearsal, the actor was candid about the obstacles he had to overcome on the road to Skid Row, the derelict neighborhood where “Little Shop of Horrors” is set.
There was, for example, the time the director of his first professional show, a production of “Anything Goes” in North Carolina, asked if he could sound more Chinese. “We call it ‘ching chong’ in the Asian acting community — ‘they want you to be ching-chong-y’ ” said Ricamora, who is half-Filipino. “It didn’t feel great.”
Even with the production of “The King and I,” which had great resources, he talked about being frustrated by what he felt was a lack of attention to dialects. “I didn’t want to make any waves because I wanted this job — I still had debt, so much debt,” he said. “And No. 2, I thought the best way to work was to say yes to everything because then they would tell other people that you’re easy to work with.” (The financial pressure was assuaged only after he started making “TV money,” as he put it, on the show “How to Get Away with Murder,” in which he played the computer whiz Oliver Hampton for six years.)
It was a relief for Ricamora to be cast in David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” a deliciously acid meta-musical from 2019 that looked at mythmaking and the way American culture deals with ethnic clichés — including a whole Rodgers and Hammerstein pastiche number about correct Chinese pronunciation.
One day, Tesori asked the largely Asian American cast what it had cost them to tell such a personal, emotional story in the show. Reliving that moment, Ricamora turned her question on its head, and was once again overcome with the pain and anger the question had unlocked as he thought about the cast getting the still-rare opportunity to play fully human characters after so many years of stereotypical roles.
“What does it [expletive] cost me, us all of my Asian American brothers and sisters?” he recounted, his voice shaking. “Here’s what it costs us: Women are constantly made to play prostitutes and just sexual beings. As Asian American men, we’re constantly asked to get rid of our sexuality completely and to be the butt of the joke and to be treated as third-class citizens.
“When you see Asian Americans standing up onstage in the theater, they’re overcoming so many years of people telling them to push that aside and be a stereotype,” he continued, tearing up. “We all wonder, ‘When are we going to get a chance to exist fully?’ And ‘Soft Power’ felt like that for all of us.”
It had been a long ride up to that moment — yet for quite a while, Ricamora’s life was focused not on theater but on tennis.
“You don’t know how many times I wrote over and over again ‘I’m going to win the U.S. Open’ in my journal in college,” he said, laughing. “Wanting to get to Broadway was never a goal of mine because I didn’t know it existed. I grew up on Air Force bases in very toxic masculine culture, so there was no theater. There were no arts at all.”
His military dad, who had emigrated from the Philippines, moved the family around until settling for a longer spell in Florida, where young Conrad attended middle and high school. His mother, who is white, had left when he was an infant, and his father remarried when Conrad was 8.
He majored in psychology at Queens University of Charlotte, N.C., which he attended on a tennis scholarship. And then he had an epiphany: In his junior year he took a theater class and was assigned a monologue from Lanford Wilson’s “Lemon Sky,” about a teenage boy attempting to connect with his estranged father. “I remember thinking, ‘This is my experience — I just have to stand here and say these words because I know what this person is talking about,’” he said. “The electricity I felt in that moment, that connection between actor, playwright and audience is something I’ve been chasing ever since.”
After completing his degree, he started acting in local community theater and moved on to professional productions. Low point: that “Anything Goes.”
High point: “Shakespeare’s R & J,” in which he played Juliet opposite Evan Jonigkeit’s Romeo in 2008. “For a queer person, it blew my mind away,” Ricamora said of the Philadelphia production. “It felt like it exploded the world open for me. There was so much more that I could be accessing in my work.”
He was almost done with his graduate studies in acting at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, when he saw the casting call for “Here Lies Love” and traveled to New York to audition.
“Immediately you just could tell you’re in the presence of someone really special and — I hate to use this word — starry,” the director Alex Timbers said over the phone. “There was a real connection with the role, but also something where you want to be a part of that actor’s career early on because they’re going to go to extraordinary places.”
Hwang was similarly impressed: “He’s kind of a charisma machine.”
And still, the outpouring unleashed by Tesori’s question is haunting. Yes, Ricamora is succeeding three Tony-nominated actors in “Little Shop of Horrors,” but it’s also hard to not feel a little frustrated for him: Why did it take so long to land a starring role? Why aren’t actors like Ricamora, Jason Tam (“Be More Chill”) or Telly Leung (“Allegiance”) better known?
“There haven’t been those roles for Asian romantic leads, that more or less hasn’t existed,” Hwang said. “Even when you get a role like Lun Tha, which is sort of in that direction, it’s still not the center.”
He added: “It’s hard for Asian women in a different way: They tend to be over-sexualized, portrayed as either lotus blossoms or dragon ladies, as we like to put it. So they are limited as well but in a different set of stereotypes.”
Never mind the quality: even the quantity is lacking. According to a report by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, only 6.3 percent of all available roles in New York City went to Asian American actors during the 2018-19 season.
A partial solution is exactly what Ricamora is doing now: putting his stamp on an iconic role such as Seymour. He allowed that he was “white-knuckling it a little” after being propelled onstage following just two weeks of rehearsal, so for now he is focusing on making the role his — “I’ll fill it out more and more as the run goes on,” he said.
For Tammy Blanchard, who has played Seymour’s love interest, Audrey, from the start: “Conrad is very deep, very centered. Jeremy was very comedic, but you also had this sense of feeling for him. I think that Conrad’s going to be more what Michael Mayer originally intended with Jonathan Groff — a dark, kind of emotional journey.”
And when that experience concludes, Ricamora is ready to tell more stories.
“I’d like to play Tom in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ or Hal in ‘Henry IV, Part One’ — my daddy issues run deep,” Ricamora said, with a laugh, of his dream parts. “But especially after doing ‘Soft Power,’ I think the roles are still being written by playwrights I haven’t even met, by Asian American playwrights that I haven’t even met.”
The challenge is obvious for that last demographic: The coalition’s report points out that Asian American playwrights, composers, librettists and lyricists made up only 4.4 percent of all writers produced on New York stages in 2018-19. When a promising slate of Asian American-steered productions was lined up, at long last, in 2020, Covid-19 hit.
Ricamora is willing to do his part there, too, though in television for now: He and his friends Kelvin Moon Loh and Jeigh Madjus just sold “No Rice,” a half-hour comedy series that they are writing, executive producing and starring in. “The title comes from what people on Grindr or Tinder or Match or whatever would put,” he explained, referring to racist shorthand descriptions. “Around 2015-2016 and earlier, it was all over the dating apps — people would freely write ‘no rice,’ ‘no spice,’ ‘no fats,’ ‘no fems.’” (He would not reveal yet where it will air.)
In the meantime, he is happy to be back onstage, battling a bloodthirsty plant and singing of loneliness and ache. “I love coming back to theater so much because you get to show up every day,” Ricamora said. “Theater grounds you — eight shows a week is no joke.”