It’s a comparatively simple show to do with a small cast and relatively simple orchestration, which makes Little Shop of Horrors a perennial favorite with community theatre groups and schools. Based on the low-budget film of the same name made in 1960, Little Shop, with its rock-lite feel and simple plot line isn’t the most intellectually or comedically interesting show in the world, but its doo-wop nostalgia can certainly fill up the Play Ground in a way I have not seen since Sweeney Todd was on stage at the venue. I was lucky to get a ticket Friday night.
Seymour Krelborn (Cory Regnier) is a poor kid with dreams of making it big and getting out of Skid Row. The object of his affection is Audrey (Sarah Ruth Diener) low on self esteem but high on her own hopes of finding love. Both of them work at Mushnik’s (Lawrence Lee) floral shop–a place where business is wilting on the vines and just about to close up when the extraordinary happens.
The story is, essentially, narrated by three “street urchins” although the trio of actresses filling these roles (Tonya Porter, Anne Stephen, and Kate Cadotte) look a step above urchin status with smart costuming by Jessica Anderson and Aaron Peterson. The doo-wop girls weave portions of the action together through music. Fortunately, the capable and soulful vocalizations of Tonya Porter buoy the effort, making the harmonizing between the three pleasant. More use could have been gotten out of the actresses, as far as their character animation when not immediately involved in the action on stage, however. There are many times when they are simply sitting on the sidelines or framing the shop’s window without any significant movement or reaction to what’s going on. Rule of thumb is that everyone on stage should be there for a reason, so these talented young ladies should be a kinetic part of the action or cool their heels back stage until they are called upon to sing. There’s plenty of room in this cartoonish, sometimes macabre, and retro production for these ladies to mug and move. It’s a musical, after all.
The de facto opening number “Skid Row (Downtown)” is choreographed well by Sarah Diener, and opens up the stage to the entire company, demonstrating that the small black box venue can accommodate larger casts, even for moments on stage when constructive use of the space creates flow for the actors. The ensemble singing is good throughout.
As the action gets underway on stage, Seymour introduces Audrey and Mushnik to a plant he’s been cultivating at the shop, a species with which he’s unfamiliar, but looks like a variation of a venus fly trap. Named Audrey II, over the course of the play, the plant grows larger not only in size, but in appetite. Regnier’s nerdy, self-effacing, yet yearning interpretation of Seymour is subtly layered and we get to see him develop from shy and retiring to greedy and, ultimately, engulfed in a peculiar madness as he feeds his own appetite and Audrey II’s for fame.
Sarah Diener’s Audrey is sweet and tortured, tottering around precariously on high heels and skimpy skirts as a metaphor for her own life. Diener performs her musical numbers with capable ability including the iconic “Suddenly, Seymour” where, with skillful use of emotional layering, Diener brings the audience to the point where she realizes the value of the steady, earnest Seymour in her otherwise abusive, chaotic life. A touching “Somewhere That’s Green” brightens up the first act and allows Diener to pull the audience in. Apparent is Diener’s natural comedic talent throughout the show with subtle touches and direct gags–a delight to see without gilding the lilly.
Gabriel Mayfield is the soulful and sinisterly threatening voice of the growing-by-leaps-and-bounds Audrey II. Even with the limited range of the show’s script, Mayfield manages to cut a significant portion of the show to his benefit, especially with his vocalizations during “Feed Me” and “Suppertime.” Movement by Pat Carroll for the elaborately designed and impressive Audrey II prop deserves its own mention for its timing and fluidity.
In what could be termed a “cameo” appearance as Orin, Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, the proud, sadistic dentist, Jody Kujawa turns in an energetic and delightful performance during his time on stage. Kujawa is a perfect casting choice for a show like Little Shop and seems to naturally adapt to the camp, humor, and madness the script conveys.
Set design by Curtis Phillips is a phenomenal use of the small space, making the limits of the venue appear larger and more constructive by magnitudes. The simple framing out of the shop by doorway and window along with hints of the interior provide enough substance without crowding the actors and making forceful adaptations during the choreographed numbers. Accommodated, stage right, is the exceptional small band, conducted by Ben Hanson. The actors are fitted with microphones for this show, unfortunately, and the volume could be bumped up a bit for a more effective punch in the space.
The production values, including lighting for Little Shop are definitely a cut above the usual fare for a Play Ground show. This is definitely a mini main stage production being put on at the venue and, with the demonstrated possibilities of what can happen at the Play Ground, reminiscent of the success of Sweeney Todd a couple of years ago, Little Shop of Horrors fits quite nicely in the venue without it looking shoddy or slapped together. The show demonstrates best what the space is about, if you read the director’s note by Michelle Juntenen. It gave her a chance to explore, for the first time, directing a musical, with the full support of the Playhouse’s production team in a venue that allows for experimentation. Fortunately, for her, the actors, and the audience, Little Shop of Horrors is definitely a pleasantly surprising match of talents and new ventures worth seeing.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Book by Howard Ashman, Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman. WITH Cory Regnier, Sarah Ruth Diener, Lawrence Lee, Jody Kujawa, Tonya Porter, Anne Stephen, Kate Cadotte, Drew Autio, Kendra Carlson, Pat Carroll, Ashley Matheson, Taylor Vezina, Anna Vogt, Derrick Williams, Pat Carroll, Nathan Carlblom and Gabriel Mayfield as the voice of Audrey II. The show runs Thursdays through Saturdays at the Play Ground, 11 East Superior Street, Duluth, through August 27. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. This review, by Dennis Kempton, is based on the Friday, 12 August performance.