Review: “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Guthrie

Seymour and Audrey from "Little Shop of Horrors."
Photo by Dan Norman

I’ve written most of this review under the assumption that almost everyone knows the plot to Little Shop of Horrors. For the yet uninitiated, Little Shop of Horrors is a musical about a man-eating plant that boosts the popularity of a bumbling young florist before it wreaks havoc on his life. This musical, created in 1982 by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken in homage to a 1960 B-list horror film (The Little Shop of Horrors), has been consistently popular for decades – and it’s clear to see why. Its overt campiness, humor, and heart make it an edgy classic that is hard to resist.

When we broke for intermission at the Guthrie’s current production of Little Shop of Horrors I leaned over to my theater buddy (who I specifically invited because Little Shop of Horrors is their favorite musical – in fact just last Halloween they dressed up as Seymour, complete with an Audrey II replica that they lugged around everywhere) and whispered the question that had been burning in the back of my mind for the entire first act.

“Did the plant always look like a penis?”

We would later find out that this very new and very phallic representation of good ol’ Audrey II was based off the corpse flower. I’ve since looked up the plant and, yeah, Audrey II bears a certain resemblance to a corpse flower with its lush pink spathe and protruding spadix, but…I mean, the flower on the Guthrie stage had veins. It looks like a dick – possibly surrounded by several labial folds. This labial impression was only underscored when one of the three puppeteers came out of Audrey II for the curtain call wearing pants that look inspired by the costumes in Janelle Monae’s music video for PYNK. IYKYK.

It might sound like I’m criticizing but I’m really not. More like…processing…a very bold design choice in the sea of creative design choices that characterize this production. The design of Audrey II (by Chris Lutter) was probably the cheekiest choice in this production of Little Shop of Horrors, but it was obvious that everyone involved had been given full leeway to be as campy and creative as possible. And the play soars because of it.

Lex Liang’s set design is excellent. He creates a crowded, gritty, dirty little corner of 1960s Skid Row that felt somehow both threatening and homey. Billboards and shop signs fill any empty spaces between the brick facades of the buildings. One of those billboards, which features an ad for a gray Mercury Monterey convertible, is built in such a way that the chorus can stand inside of it, giving off the cartoonish impression that the three of them are riding in the ad’s convertible. A banister on the spiral staircase from billboard to stage is inlaid with a strip of lights, which creates a magical moment as the banister lights follow the trio’s progress down the stairs at the beginning of the play. 

Chiffon, Ronnette and Crystal from "Little Shop of Horrors."
Photo by Dan Norman

Sully Ratke clearly had a blast with costuming – especially for David Darrow’s small menagerie of characters and – oh my gosh – the chorus. We first meet the chorus in vaguely alien garb: neon pink pumpkin shaped headgear, neon orange sunglasses, and white shifts layered with sparkling, rigid cape collars. They often appear in in itty bitty overalls and, toward the end of the show are clad in gorgeous, floor-length green and pink dresses that look very inspired by the corpse flower.

In case it isn’t clear: it is worth the full ticket price of this show simply to experience the visuals crafted by the creative team. 

The excellence of Little Shop of Horrors doesn’t end with the design. Performances are big, cheesy, and campy. All the chorus members (Erica Durham, Gabrielle Dominique, and Vie Boheme) are strong in their singing, dancing, and comedic timing. The puppeteers are as incredible as they are invisible. David Darrow as Orin is the kind of villain you hate, momentarily love because his performance of “Be a Dentist” is so damn funny, and then hate again. Will Roland taps into his inner dweeb and truly becomes Seymour Krelborn. I was especially charmed by his dancing, first with the chorus in “Ya Never Know” where he “struggled” to catch on to their perfect choreography and then later in “Mushnik and Son” which is a silly, desperate duet between him and Mr. Mushnik (Robert Dorfman), wherein the two men stumble over their choreography, both battling to lead their bizarro couple’s dance. Substantial credit in both of these instances is also due to Marcia Milgrom Dodge for her choreography and directing. 

I really loved China Brickey as Audrey, although I have a feeling that she got pushed into a campier, ditzier performance than she was comfortable with. Her doe-eyed vamps to the audience were hilarious, especially right before Audrey II gets its second meal, but the wide-eyed damseling started to feel a little one-noted even before then. That said, Brickey’s performance of “Suddenly Seymour” was one of my favorite parts of the show because we finally saw a glimmer of the authenticity beneath the camp. 

I would be remiss not to mention the sound balancing issues the night I went. It was difficult to hear onstage actors whenever they were duetting with Audrey II. Not to be an old fart, but there were also a couple moments where I literally got apple watch notifications warning me that I was in a loud environment. This was a welcome verification of the excessive volume as I looked at my fellow audience members, trying to see if anyone else felt like they were being sandblasted by the noise. 

There are a few elements of Little Shop of Horrors that are starting to show their age, but overall this production is easy to recommend. The cast is as charismatic as they are campy and the design elements are wildly creative. Oh, and they have a cute photo opp at the top of the endless bridge and themed cocktails (plus a mocktail!) for anyone (me) who’s a sucker for that kind of thing. 

Little Shop of Horrors
June 22 – August 18, 2024
Wurtele Thrust Stage, Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

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