Florence – Alex Newborn is no stranger to ‘Little Shop of Horrors’. He made his stage debut at age 19 in the 1989 Zodiac Theatre production, and reprised his roles twice more for the same director at other venues, most recently guest-starring in the 2008 Florence High School production. Says Newborn, “On your first show, you always feel like you got cast by luck. So it was very validating when Donnie Bryan asked me back 2 years later– and then 19 years after that!— to do it again.”
But earlier this year, Bryan mounted the production for a fourth time at his new school in Nashville, and Newborn was unable to participate due to the distance and other logistics. “It was a blow to let my roles be filled by others. I had come to feel very proprietary about them,” explains Newborn. “But the consolation was, I’d been invited to direct my own production here in Florence, so there was a silver lining.”
Indeed, the program for the 1991 Russellville High School production (Newborn’s second acting foray with Little Shop) contains a prophetic quote: “Alex says he would like to someday direct Little Shop, so he can vicariously play every role.”
About that long-ago bit of foreshadowing, Newborn smiles: “Sometimes your dreams do come looking for you.”
‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is best known for the 1986 film version starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, directed by Frank Oz. That movie was based on the highly successful 1982 Off-Broadway play, which was in turn based on the 1960 non-musical black-and-white camp film of the same title directed by Roger Corman. The central plot is always the same: a nebbish floral clerk finds an exotic flytrap plant which grows larger when it eats human blood, and he must go to ever-darker lengths to provide for it.
In many ways, it’s a cautionary retelling of the Faust legend, with our pseudo-hero Seymour ‘selling his soul to the Devil’ to get something he already possessed, if he had only believed in himself to begin with. In the play, what he wants most is the love of his coworker Audrey. Little does he suspect that his feelings are returned, but Audrey’s stuck in an abusive relationship due to her own lack of self-worth.
Audrey’s boyfriend Orin is a sadistic dentist with an ironic addiction to his own nitrous oxide, which he denies to his patients. The star-crossed lovers’ boss, Mr. Mushnik, seems to be a paternal figure to them, but we learn he has a more selfish motive behind his actions. And the ever-growing man-eating plant, which Seymour names Audrey II (nicknamed ‘Twoey’), is accomplished on-stage with a variety of puppets, which range in size from a small hand-puppet to a monstrosity the size of a Volkswagen.
Newborn says that his production will combine visual elements from, and nods to, all the past versions: 1960, 1982, 1986, and even direct references to the 1989 Zodiac production. “One of the cast, Don Grace, is a bigger fan of the 1960 film than the later musical versions, so he was delighted when I added a tiny aspect to his character which directly references a character that only appears in the Corman film. From the Off-Broadway show, we’re using all the songs that were cut from the later film, but wherever possible our costumes and props are referencing the 1986 movie, and we’ve incorporated some comedy elements unique to that film. So it’s a real hybrid.”
But how does one make a self-reference to the previous local production?
“For one thing, we’ve rented the same puppets from the ’89 show, which were originally built by Ryan Sims for the Princess Theatre production in Decatur in 1987. They’re now a quarter of a century old, but Donnie Bryan refurbished them back in February for his Ensworth High School production in Nashville.”
Newborn knew for several months prior that he would be getting the same puppets, but he was unprepared for another ’89 element to join the cast. “On the first day of auditions, Dr. Randy Pettus walked in to try out, wearing the same ‘Feed Me Seymour’ hand-drawn shirt that I had given him at the cast party 23 years before.” Pettus was the original Zodiac Seymour, but this time he’s playing store owner Mr. Mushnik. Explains Newborn, “Randy was an unexpected but delightful solution to a problem… you see, unlike the 1986 movie, Mushnik actually sings in the stage show. Where would I find a singing, tango-dancing actor with the charisma of the paternal figure, but who could also pull off the gravitas of the ‘heavy’ when the greed takes him over? At first, I was really dithering, and then I saw on his audition sheet where Randy had indicated what roles he was most interested in, he’d put simply ‘Seymour, comma, Mushnik’. And the light bulb went off. It’s been a delight seeing him tackle the same show from a new perspective. And best of all, if we needed someone to run Seymour’s songs when Dillon Green was temporarily unavailable, I had Randy right there.”
Dillon Green takes on the role of Seymour, which he calls his first big part. Recalls Newborn, “Some directors frown upon actors singing songs from the show they’re auditioning for, and I’ve never understood that. I welcomed and encouraged it, and I’m glad I did. I had heard some possible Seymours at the auditions, but none that really clicked for me. On the third day, Dillon came in and sang ‘Suddenly Seymour’ and it was like I was hearing the song for the first time. He took it and made it his own. And you couldn’t ask for a more pleasant leading man. Seymour has very little off-time in the show, he’s onstage nearly the entire time, and Dillon has been very giving of his time. The first night we worked with the entire band, he stayed afterwards to sing for them on several songs, including other people’s solos. Turns out, he can actually sing Audrey’s part, in her key.”
Says Newborn, “Amber Rhodes is Audrey. Stress that verb. IS. I was blessed to hear many strong female auditions, and some of those could have ‘played’ Audrey, but Amber simply is her. She was hands-down the clearest, purest voice I heard. The ironic thing is, Amber and I attended UNA together and she probably doesn’t remember this, but we once discussed using Suddenly Seymour as an audition piece together, although that never came to pass. So the seed of Amber-as-Audrey was planted in my brain about 20 years ago. Also, when I told my wife I would be directing Little Shop, Amber was the first person she suggested for Audrey. But the real clincher was when Amber asked if she could audition a second time, because she didn’t think she had done very well. I mean, that’s Audrey to a T… she was the best, yet she still didn’t believe in herself. I was playing my cards close to my vest, as the cast list had not been finalized or posted, so I just told her ‘You did fine’… even though inside my head, I was screaming ‘I will soon be hearing you sing those songs on a daily basis!’ And as the rehearsal process goes on, I am amazed to see her find the emotions of the song each and every time. When she sings, a hush fills the theatre and everyone in the cast and crew just listens rapt, falling in love with that character.”
Rhodes was also unaware until after being cast that the stage show, unlike the movie, has a tragic ending, but she quickly came to embrace the original second act, which gives her role a bigger dramatic range and an additional beautiful solo. Says Newborn, “I also feel that the darker ending is more tonally ‘right’ for a cautionary tale, and less abrupt than the movie’s last-minute re-shoot of a happy ending. Seymour doesn’t believe in his own worth. He could have Audrey if he’d only believe in himself and take action, but instead he turns to an outside force to bring him his happiness. He compromises himself, and like so may ‘quick fixes’ in life, whether it’s drugs or alcohol or a bad relationship, eventually his ‘devil’ coupled with his choice of inaction brings about the destruction of everything he cares about.”
What do you do when you have too many strong women audition for your show, and only four roles to give them? Alex Newborn decided to create more roles. “The play was originally written with one actor playing all these minor roles, male and female, that pop up one time only, but I think it’s more fun to expand the cast and showcase more local talent,” says Newborn. And that led to some creative choices. “Months ago, I had seen pictures from a show that had not just three ‘urchins’ (Crystal, Chiffon, and Ronnette), they actually had six. At the time I thought it was excessive, but now I understand what can lead to that. Our show will have four urchins, so I had to create an extra character name. Staying with the naming convention of 60’s girl groups, I settled on Vandella.” The now-four roles of Ronnette, Crystal, Chiffon, and Vandella will be played respectively by Sarah Myrick, Keia Andrews, Sami Warren, and Sarah Mackey. Says Newborn, “I love the otherworldly quality of the urchins, who are at once part of the action yet above it. And Sami, Keia, and the two Sarahs are having fun together being all sassy, and it shows.”
Newborn also assigned one actress each to some featured soloist positions, such as Allyson Dunkerly in the Skid Row number and Kendra Dobbs in the Meek Shall Inherit number, plus he turned one male role, Customer #2, into a female role for Natalie King, and gave one of his favorite roles, also traditionally male, to a female. “I am very fond of the Voice of the Plant role. I’ve played it three times, and what’s not to love? You’re a bad guy who wins at the end! But I hadn’t heard anyone that I thought could do it, and then Emily Creasy came in and started belting out this song from the show Chicago, and this powerful, funky voice was rattling the windows of the room I was in. No lie, I had the urge to open the door so the glass wouldn’t shatter from the vibrations.” The original script does refer to the Plant with feminine pronouns, and Seymour has lines like “Audrey II is not a healthy girl”, so casting Emily as the Voice of Audrey II has a certain logic to it.
Of course, the Plant isn’t just one person’s responsiblity, it’s shared between two: Voice and Puppeteer. For the lead puppeteer, Newborn knew just where to turn. “One of my oldest friends, John Givens, used to puppeteer professionally with a troupe called Kids on the Block, which taught schoolkids to accept people who are differently abled. As it turns out, John had seen the Decatur show for which these puppets had been built, so he’d been wanting to do this show even longer than my own involvement with it. He said it was a bucket list wish for him to finally crawl inside them and play.” Givens has also taken on the roles of Wino #2 and Mr. Bernstein.
Additional puppeteers will be Newborn himself, Patrick Alexander (who also plays Patrick Martin at the end of the show), Brian Scott (also seen in the show as Wino #1), and Newborn’s son Zakary. In addition to the puppets built by Sims in 1987, Newborn commissioned an additional puppet to be built in their style for this show by Jaime Hitchcock, a professional puppet builder from near Nashville whose creations have recently been seen on CNN.com and have garnered praise from Jim Henson’s youngest daughter, Heather… who coincidentally has a small role in the 1986 film.
“I met Heather Henson a couple of years ago and had her sign my copy of Little Shop. She said no one had ever asked her to sign it before, and very graciously hung out with my sons for about half an hour as if they were her oldest friends,” so I made sure to include her self-admitted ‘bit part’ in the show. Isabella Riley is playing the Heather Henson role in this production.
Newborn adds, “We have some fun special effects in this show, and I wanted to add a couple more. One is a very Muppets-style sleight of hand. Jim Henson excelled at building one puppet that was controlled one way and intercutting it with a second one that worked completely differently, to keep the audience guessing and also to make the character more alive. I realized at a very young age that I grasped the secret of these tricks intuitively, but it only increased my love and wonder for the Muppet Performers’ artistry.”
Newborn is also a founding member of The Wickets comedy troupe, and has been doing improvisational comedy for ten years, so his approach to directing the show utilizes this style. “Months ago, I was watching the 1986 film with director Frank Oz’s commentary track, and he said that a certain scene between Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray had shot like 27 different endings, each unique. The actors would go aside, collaborate on ideas, and then when the cameras rolled, it was new every time. I said, hey, that’s the Wickets!”
Fellow Wicket improv comedians Wes Thompson, Adam Neal, and Michael Hill will be ‘guest stars’ in the production, much as Bill Murray, John Candy, and Steve Martin were for the movie. “We’ve had a blast building in two scenes where we’ve workshopped the action in an improvisational style. I used this method last year when I played the Genie in the Gingerbread production of Aladdin Jr., so it’s a process I’m very comfortable with.” Newborn also comments on the irony: “I was singing ‘Friend Like Me’ last year as the Genie, one of the last songs that Howard Ashman wrote before he died. And it hit me, that’s the same guy who wrote Little Shop, in which I sang a lyric that said ‘Hey, I’m your genie, I’m your friend’. It was like I’d come full circle.”
Neal and Thompson have non-singing roles, but Michael Hill has the extra responsibility of two songs as Orin Scrivello, Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend. Newborn recalls, “We had a visitor at one rehearsal, Sandra Betterton (the wife of original 1989 Mushnik Andy Betterton) who before she ever even saw him act or sing a word, told me ‘You have the perfect dentist.’ She proceeded to laugh at everything he said or did. In the character’s second song, which is not in the film, poetic justice is served as he suffocates on his own nitrous oxide, which means Hill must intersperse hysterical laughter with lyrics. The first time Hill ran the song with musical director Kristi Montero, Newborn thought she was cuing Hill when to laugh. “It was almost like a giggle duet. Then I realized, she was genuinely cracked up by his performance.”
Montero pulls double duty as the keyboardist in the show band, which will also include Michael Ivey on guitar, Jeremy Sparks on bass, and Rex Holiday on drums. Newborn admits he had never directed a musical before, and was unsure where to begin looking for professional musicians. “The first two that were recommended to me, in the same breath, were Rex and Jeremy. Imagine my delight when Jeremy later informed me that his wife, Donna Burns, was the original Crystal in the 1989 show.”
Additional cast members include: Logan Hill, Molly King, Orion Newborn, and Nathan Ross Clemons.
The Box Office will open Mon. Oct. 8th at 11am-3pm and daily during the performance week. Even Sat. 11-3pm. Call 256-764-1700 for additional info.
PRESS RELEASE-SHOALS THEATRE