Review: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS at Drury Lane

Review: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS at Drury Lane

Pictured: Will Lidke and Kelly Felthous. Photo by Brett Beiner.

By Kelsey McGrath

Drury Lane has a casting problem.

And no matter how many times it’s pointed out, nothing is done about it.

Take LITTLE SHOPS OF HORRORS. *Ahem* For example.

It’s a musical that, in most productions, relegates actors of color to the stereotypical secondary roles of the doo-wop trio of street urchins and the off-stage voice of the singing plant. Does Drury Lane take advantage of the fact that it exists in a CHICAGO suburb and defy this questionable trope? Engaging with a community that advocates for inclusive and representative casting? A rich, theatrical hub FILLED with TALENTED and EXPERIENCED musical theatre actors of color?!

NOPE. NO, THEY DON’T.

Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette are played by the only performers of color seen on stage with another performer of color singing off stage for the voice of Audrey II. Yep. That’s what they decided to do.

To make matters worse, accomplished actor Stephen Allen Jr, seen multiple times on Porchlight, Paramount, and Griffin’s stages, is Seymour’s understudy. Even though Drury Lane had the resources to make a mindful, progressive decision with their casting, they elected to stick to questionable tradition, making their choices even more difficult for me to understand. Not to reduce Will Lidke, who is extremely talented and accomplished in his own right. That’s not this conversation.

While this may be considered “traditional” casting for LITTLE SHOP, it’s 2018. As a theatre community, Chicago is known to challenge casting conventions; if we’re telling a story that’s been done before and race isn’t a pivotal plot point, let’s advocate for inclusivity. Let’s defy “tradition.” There’s no reason for a LITTLE SHOP production to be cast along racial lines. Drury Lane’s recent production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” featured (again) a primarily white cast, with black bodies relegated to servitude. And again with “Crazy for You” in their 16/17 season – in an ensemble of twenty-seven, there were no black bodies on stage. Classic texts should not be cast “traditionally.” If anything, this is an opportunity to breathe new life into a well-known story, lifting up and reflecting on the intrinsic similarities of the human condition as theatre is meant to do.

As a critic, I’m tired of seeing primarily white bodies on the Drury Lane stage. When this playhouse is many folks’ only exposure to theatre, it consistently perpetuates ideas of “The Great White Way” and engages in polarized storytelling. Drury Lane is so close to Chicago and has the clout to spearhead change in musical theatre casting conventions. There is no excuse.

Theatre is LITERALLY fake. Cast INCLUSIVELY.

I’m tired of seeing these choices “justified” with the occasional “non traditionally cast” show (ie. 42nd Street in the 17/18 season) as a means to make amends. As an avid Chicago theatregoer, I’m tired of supporting an institution that refuses to advocate for its community’s talent and values.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is another excellently produced, yet entirely disappointing Drury Lane production. If you want to see the same old tired tropes, watch the movie instead; talk about why we need to defy “tradition.”

About author

Kelsey McGrath

Kelsey is a Chicago based producer, actor, writer, critic, and mixologist. An alum of Black Box Acting’s ACADEMY Program, Kelsey curates “The Newness,” a monthly salon of new work. They also work closely with Trans Voices Cabaret Chicago as well as Chicago Theatre Access Auditions. Follow them on Insta! @playsandpours, @kelseylooks

Comments
  • Paul Packer#1

    September 22, 2018

    While I completely agree with what you are saying, I do need to point out that you need to research the meaning that of “The Great White Way” which historically has nothing to do with race but with the wattage of electricity lighting Broadway. Your reference to this is lost on me in this article.

    Reply
    • Jason#2

      October 11, 2018

      I don’t think the author is saying that the “Great White Way” got its name because of the subject matter of this article. I am pretty sure she is using it as a metaphor.

      Reply
  • Javier#3

    September 23, 2018

    I am at a bit of a loss. I am not a member of the Chicago Theatre community. I was brought here via an online link. The article is listed as “Review,” but it is not. It is a commentary about the writer’s feelings about the theatre company, not a review of the production. There is not a single positive or negative critique of an actor’s performance or designer’s work. I get it, the writer has an agenda with the theatre that goes beyond this production, but perhaps she has forgotten the purpose of a review. To inform the reader in such a way, so that the reader can then make an informed decision as to whether to attend the production… or not. This article seems to have an intended audience of one… the artistic director of the theatre company. In the future, perhaps the writer could better balance a review with a discussion of the merits of the show that she actually saw vs the aspirations of the show she wished she could have seen.

    Reply
    • Alex#4

      September 24, 2018

      I agree.
      This needed to be said, but it’s not a review, it is a critique.
      I wanted to know whether or not this was worth seeing even in passing. All Little Shop productions I’ve seen have been high school or college, and was rather excited to see it come to The Lane. But, as mentioned above, this is not a review. And, in a somewhat hypocritical irony, the only actor that is praised is Will Lidke; who is called “extremely talented and accomplished”. The only other actor mentioned, Stephen Allen Jr, is referred to as “accomplished”.
      I was looking for a review and instead I was told by the author themselves, “That’s not this conversation”.

      Reply
  • Tanesha Causey#5

    September 23, 2018

    Another PerformInk review screaming for inclusion and diversity when the website itself is overrun with white cisgender critics/writers. *Ahem* People who live in glass houses…

    Reply
  • Izzie#6

    September 24, 2018

    #PerforminkTooWhite

    Reply
  • Shirley#7

    September 24, 2018

    I could tell from the second I started reading that this was written by a white person. Have you talked with the black actors from Cat On a Hot Tin Roof? Have you asked them their opinion on being cast in that production as the roles they were, or are you going to continue to speak for black actors and put words in their mouths?

    It sounds to me like Perform Ink has a self-righteous White Savior complex.

    Do you also only see black and white? Are black actors the only “actors of color,” because you don’t seem to give a hoot that there weren’t any other colors present beside black and white. I could respect this article if it took umbrage with the fact that according to the Playbill there only appears to be actors who are white and African American. Do you actually want diversity onstage? Remember that an all black cast is just as diverse as an all white cast.

    ” To make matters worse, accomplished actor Stephen Allen Jr. . . . is Seymour’s understudy.”

    Would you prefer Seymour’s understudy be white? Are you saying that it is not a respectable job to be an understudy? From what I can see from that performer’s credits on About the Artist, is that he has yet to take on a leading role in a large equity musical theatre house. What better way to break into that scene than to understudy two leading roles (You neglected to mention he also covers Audrey 2)? Never mind the fact that you have just pinned those two actors against each other and then claimed not to! You cannot just bring up a point and then claim that it is not apart of the conversation. It would be much more beneficial to this performer’s credit, as well as your professions credit, if you would consider all of the factors at play in a casting decision instead of merely cherry picking the race card just to fit your white washing whistle blowing agenda. You may be able to come up with a more compelling argument.

    I wonder what good you think you are doing when you write a “Review” like this.

    We need to respect each other and assume that this community wants the best for each other. If you view theaters like Marriott, Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, Drury Lane, and The Paramount like the enemies then you have already made up your mind. Perhaps next time you have a problem with their casting you should pick up that magical device in your pocket, ask to speak with the casting department, and inquire what they are doing to ensure that their productions feature a diverse representation of the Chicago theatre scene. Maybe you will be able to be a part of the solution next time.

    I hate to be petty….using all caps in a professional article? Come on.

    Reply
    • Kevin H Meece#8

      September 25, 2018

      Yes yes yes! All of what you said ×100!

      Reply
    • Nathan#9

      September 27, 2018

      I couldn’t have said it better than Shirley. Brilliantly put. And to reiterate other comments: this is an op-ed piece and not a review. It Is a disservice for Performink’s editors to label it as such.

      Reply
  • Rachel#11

    September 26, 2018

    I’m not sure whether the above comments are from folks associated with the theater, but thank you for this review. This is exactly what theater reviews should look like when there has been a failure on the part of the theater, no matter how pleasant the show. This is great and I’m glad to have read it.

    Reply

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