Monday, July 1, 2024

"Little Shop of Horrors" at the Guthrie Theater

For their summer musical this year, the Guthrie has chosen the cult favorite Little Shop of Horrors. The 1960 B-movie filmed in just two days (per a great article in the program) - turned successful Off-Broadway musical - turned 1986 film starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene (from the original Off-Broadway cast), and Steve Martin - finally landed on Broadway in 2003. And 20 years later it's on the Guthrie stage, the first regional theater to produce a Broadway musical in 1983 (per another great article in the program). It's a bit of a departure from the more classic musical fare usually seen at the Guthrie, and it's a risk that has paid off greatly. This production leans heavily into the story's B-movie roots, features a super talented (and mostly local) cast, and is loads of fun while not ignoring the tragic aspects of the story. Visit the Guthrie through August 18 to see this fantastic production of this brilliant little musical, but please, don't feed the plant.

For the few of you who may not be familiar with the story, here's a brief plot summary. Aspiring botanist Seymour finds a strange and interesting plant and brings it into Mushnik's Flower shop, where he works with Audrey. He soon finds out that the plant, named Audrey II, will only grow if he gives it blood, but in return it makes Seymour's life wonderful - the failing flower shop flourishes, Seymour becomes famous, and most importantly, he thinks it makes him look better in Audrey's eyes. But the dilemma comes when Seymour needs to find more sources of blood to satisfy Audrey II's growing appetite. He's sold his soul to the devil and there's no turning back.*

Seymour (Will Roland) and the Skid Row denizens
(photo by Dan Norman)
Marcia Milgrom Dodge began her career by choreographing the regional premiere of Little Shop in 1985, so it seems fitting that after working at over 60 regional theaters, she brings her vision of Little Shop to the Guthrie. And that vision includes nods to B-movies, sci-fi, and horror, and a tone that is both campy and heartfelt. In this bizarre, extreme, alien story, you really feel for these flawed humans as they yearn for and try to achieve a better life. 

Suddenly Seymour! (Will Roland and China Brickey)
(photo by Dan Norman)
Our Seymour, Will Roland, comes to us from Broadway, where he was in the original casts of Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill. In a post-show discussion he talked about loving the movie, and this being a dream role for him, and it shows. He's everything you want in a Seymour, full of desperation to better his life and a sweet and earnest love for Audrey, an adorable schlub that you can't help but root for. As the object of his affection Audrey, China Brickey's performance creates a thing of wounded beauty. She's as desperate to get out of her situation as Seymour, but goes about it in a different way. As China talked about in the post-show discussion, the production doesn't shy away from the very real and dangerous domestic abuse that Audrey suffers, but also shows the healing that happens with Seymour. Will and China's duet of "Suddenly Seymour," truly one of the best love song duets in musical theater, is heart-wrenchingly sweet, their voices pairing gorgeously.

it's just the gas (David Darrow with Will Roland)
(photo by Dan Norman)
Ten years after watching David Darrow play the "gleefully maniacal and sadistic dentist" on one of the smallest stages in town (Open Eye Theatre, in the 7th House production), it's a thrill to watch him play it on one of the biggest stages in town. He gives Audrey's abusive boyfriend Orin an Elvis-like swagger, and goes full bore into this narcissistic and ridiculously full of himself character. But that's not all, he also plays a series of weird and alien creatures, obviously having a lot of fun with it. Also having a lot of fun are Erica Durham, Gabrielle Dominique, and Vie Boheme as the doo-wopping Greek chorus, almost ever-present as they comment on the story and move it along, adding their pristine harmonies to the musical landscape. Other highlights in the hard-working ensemble include the great Robert Dorfman as the adorably grumpy shop-owner Mushnik, and local legend T. Mychael Rambo perfectly voicing the plant.

Erica Durham, Vie Boheme, and Gabrielle Dominique
(photo by Dan Norman)
And speaking of the plant, Audrey II is represented by increasingly larger puppets (designed by Chris Lutter and manipulated by Yvonne Freese), from a cute little hand puppet to a massive structure that fills the plant shop. The seedy downtown street is well-represented on the Guthrie's thrust stage, with run-down brick buildings and vintage billboards lining the back wall, out of which the plant shop extends, transforming from dark and sad to colorful and overflowing with flowers and customers. The fab '60s era costumes range from an array of "classy" dresses for Audrey to spacey alien concoctions with silver and neon. (Set design by Lex Liang, costume design by Sully Rutke.)

photo by Dan Norman
The beloved '60s themed score sounds fantastic as performed by this talented cast, accompanied by the five-piece band led by Music Director Denise Prosek, seated above one of the Skid Row buildings. The director also choreographed, but there aren't really any showy dance numbers, just character driven movement, and of course the girl group moves of the chorus. The opening number and "Skid Row" are particularly well done, with characters slowly walking onstage with the house lights still up, filling out the world of Skid Row, the songs slowly building with the entire ensemble involved.

In a post-show discussion the day I attended, China Brickey talked about how the tragic ending (which was changed for the movie) really is a consequence for the characters' choices, and makes you wonder how things could have ended differently, if they had made different choices, if they had trusted themselves and each other a little more. David Darrow talked about the clear morality of the piece, how some of the characters are beyond redemption, and if you do bad things, you pay for it. "Don't feed the plant" could really mean don't feed the greed, fear, narcissism, and potential evil that exists inside all of us. Some deep thoughts wrapped up in a really fun, entertaining, and practically perfect musical.