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“Little Shop of Horrors” at Phantom Projects Theatre Group

A Fresh Truthful Take On An Old Campy Classic

By Shannon Cudd

Little Shop of Horrors is a modern musical classic with a book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, the same duo behind many Disney classics. It’s based on a 1960 black comedy film of the same name. It first opened off-off-Broadway in 1982 before transferring to Off-Broadway at the Orpheum Theatre that same year. It would go on to become the highest-ever grossing Off-Broadway production of its time whose popularity would only continue to grow through regional and high school productions.

Given its rich historical role in the Broadway canon, director Miguel Cardenas has his work cut out for him. Thankfully he is up for the challenge promising audiences a fresh take based in truthfulness that still honors the show’s campy origins. “We have a couple surprises in the show that you'll have to come and see to find out,” Cardenas teases. This is Cardenas’ second time directing the show so it holds a special place in his heart.

“I love so many aspects of the show. I love the music. I love the campiness of it all. I love a meat eating plant, all of those things I love,” he gushed.

What really gets his creative juices flowing is diving into the script itself with a new group of actors and performers. He considers himself a collaborative director who enjoys getting to the heart of the text. “We're finding a lot of new choices and a lot of honesty while still paying homage to the original camp of the show,” he explains. “We're trying to figure out what the line is that we can walk by making us feel really honest and having the audience really feel what these characters are experiencing, but also not losing the comedy of it all.” Little Shop’s original off-Broadway production ran until November 1, 1987 completing 2,209 performances over 5 years. It was offered a Broadway transfer but Ashman believed it belonged in a smaller space making this Phantom Projects production at La Habra Depot the perfect fit.

Cardenas feels fortunate to be working with many talented actors in this production. Christopher Diem, the actor who plays the leading man Seymour, and he had many long conversations about what motivates Semour’s ambition. “Seymour is really ambitious to just be happy,” they concluded. If only things were that simple, but then audiences would not have a show. Seymour’s needs are basic but he is a people pleaser who also yearns to make Audrey and everyone else around him happy which makes things complicated especially when confronted with a man-eating plant with a secret agenda of its own.

Speaking of that planet, Cardenas believes it embodies a wise old saying. “Be careful what you wish for, and not only be careful what you wish for but be careful how you get it,” he muses. This production displays this lesson which also has real life implications with greedy CEOs making record profits off the backs of their workers.

“The plant is a manipulative anomaly, right? I think that this plant did a lot of listening before the plant decided to actually speak, and it chose to speak at the exact right time,” Cardenas stated. The plant leads the main characters to their downfalls with an impressive style and flair because it knew exactly how to exploit their weaknesses.

The finale of the show warns the audience “don’t feed the plant.” When asked what that means to Cardenas he again turns to the themes of kindness and respect. He believes it matters how you treat people going up. “I like to, in every process, remind all of the actors and all of the designers that we are all equally as lucky to be in a space or performing a show as each other. No one is more lucky to be working with anyone else,” he stated. Seymour, Audrey, and Mr. Mushnik are all cautionary tales.

Cardenas wants the audiences to walk away pondering who’s really the bad guy in this story. “I have feelings about who the true villain is that I won't share right now,” he teases. “I think as a cast, we've all kind of talked about it and everybody has different thoughts on who the real villain is.”

Beyond deep life questions, Cardenas believes audiences should see this show for a plethora of reasons. First and foremost it is “fun and crazy and campy.” Cardenas also understands its importance in musical theater history.

His final reason for seeing the show is because everyone can benefit from disconnecting from our hectic modern lives and having a communal experience. Cardenas loves having post show discussions with his friends and family, debating their interpretations, and favorite moments. His favorite moment so far in this production is when the plant speaks for the first time. Come and see the show for yourself to learn yours and then tell a friend.

Shannon Cudd is a writer, actor, and theater lover in Orange County, California.

“Little Shop of Horrors” Phantom Projects Theatre Group at La Habra Depot 311 South Euclid St, La Habra, CA 90631 June 2-11, 2023

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