Playhouse finds deeper meaning in 'Little Shop of Horrors'

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"Little Shop of Horrors," which opens Thursday at the Duluth Playhouse, took an unusual path to the stage, says Linda Bruning, who is directing the production.

Her research determined that the spoof of 1960s horror films was kind of a bet when originally produced. It had to be filmed in an old warehouse space in 48 hours and have various other elements incorporated into it.

Then, in the 1980s, a musical remake was made into a film.

Only after all that did it become a play.

The familiar story centers on Seymour, a meek fellow who has discovered an exotic plant with a talent for singing -- and an unfortunate taste for fresh blood. As Seymour becomes a celebrity, the plant's appetite keeps growing.

Bruning, a professional guest director with 20 years' experience, will add some twists, one derived by going back to the show's film beginnings for some deeper meaning. For instance, she says there were political meanings behind some of the play's elements, with a critique of the rise of suburbia and the devastation of inner cities. The plant is seen as representing the greed of American society.

"That will be very obvious," she said, in this version.

Other interpretations break with tradition a little bit. The sense of intentionally corny acting will be missing here. In this show, "it's very real acting," she said.

"We also are taking this show into the audience," Bruning said. The cast will break the so-called "fourth wall" by sometimes speaking directly to the audience or even being out among it.

It's not in the script, she said, but "all the elements are there to do that."

None of which should be taken as meaning the fun has been taking out of "Little Shop."

"We've had a good time giving substance to what is a fun musical," Bruning said.

Local organist, educator and writer Sam Black is directing the music, as he often does at the Playhouse. Brian Proball, with whom Bruning often works, is working on set design. And Leanne Vecchione of American National Ballet is doing the choreography.

The cast itself is mostly a young one, including Marian Audrey, a freshman musical theater major from the University of Minnesota Duluth, in a leading role as Audrey, Seymour's love interest. (Not to be confused with Audrey II, the plant.)

The cast also includes a dance major from UMD and others from the school.

The other lead, Joe Levander, playing Seymour, is a bit older. Bruning said Levander, who has professional experience, is "phenomenal in the role."

In all, she said auditions turned up a number of "triple threats" -- performers who can act, sing and dance.

In fact, she had two men so strong for the role of Audrey II that she kept them both on, putting Gabriel Mayfield in the Audrey II role and expanding the Ronettes with a Ron -- played by Dante Jamar Pirtle.

Bruning said much of the cast is so young that it hasn't ever seen the 1960s version of the movie, and even the 1980s version came out when they were young.

Already, more than a week before opening, with work on the set still coming, Bruning said her cast is ready.

"Last night they could have opened," she said Wednesday night, adding that it was the second solid run-through in a row.

"Little Shop of Horrors," by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, opens Thursday at 7:30 p.m. It runs at 7:30 p.m. April 14-16, 21-23 and 28-30 and at 2 p.m. April 17, 23-24 and 30, and May 1.

Tickets are on sale now, adults $15, seniors $14, students $12 and children ages 11 and younger $8.

The production is staged at the Playhouse's Depot stage.

For more information, call 733-7555.