(Bloomberg) -- “I’ve given you sunlight, I’ve given you rain, looks like you’re not happy, ’less I open a vein,” sings geeky Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, as he serenades a man-eating plant.
The same sort of painstaking doting goes into birthing the show’s scene-stealing alien botanical—named Audrey II, after Seymour’s human love interest—before a note is sung in this popular 1982 musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
Two starry productions of the show are now in previews, one in New York, with Mindhunter’s Jonathan Groff, the other at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, with Pose breakout Mj Rodriguez and Glee belter Amber Riley. And both place a fantastical piece of puppetry at center stage. If you’re a theater nerd, this fall you’re going to get your fix of wicked weeds.
Audrey II, traditionally operated by one or more humans and voiced offstage, has a big personality—by turns charming, sexy, and dangerous. Although both productions launched on the same day, Sept. 17, their approaches to the blood-lusting botanical vary; one hews close to the original run’s roots, while the other goes out on a limb.
“In the 1980s, Marty Robinson, who designed the original puppet and who’ll forever be linked with the show, figured out the heart and soul of that plant and how to make it function,” says director Michael Mayer. The Spring Awakening Tony winner is shepherding Groff and castmates Tammy Blanchard, who plays dim Audrey; Christian Borle, as the creepy dentist; and Kingsley Leggs, who supplies the voice of Audrey II. “Personally, I think if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Instead, they tweaked it.
Mayer’s production, the first Off Broadway revival in 37 years, “honors the original Audrey II and adds our own fresh aesthetic,” he says. The plant puppet is based on designs by Nicholas Mahon, a Hudson, N.Y.-based theatrical designer best known for his work on the colossal marionettes at the opening ceremonies of last year’s Pyeongchang Olympics.
At New York’s Westside Theatre, where the show officially premieres on Oct. 17, the plant’s speckled podlike appearance is very much as described in the late Ashman’s script, which he adapted from a 1960 Roger Corman sci-fi flick. Formed from fiberglass, foam, and fabric, it resembles a “cross between a Venus flytrap and an avocado.”
But it eventually grows so massive that an entire restaurant full of people could load up on avocado toast.
“It grows to the size of a Smart car,” says Marc Petrosino, co-founder of Monkey Boys, a production company specializing in puppets and props near Philadelphia, which constructed the show’s four Audrey IIs based on Mahon’s plans.
The four plants used onstage as the play progresses go from a foot tall to massive enough to swallow up a person in one bite, and they accommodate two puppeteers who move it laterally and vertically. To construct the full range of puppets from scratch would cost about $200,000, according to Petrosino. Off Broadway’s plants have been recycled and modified from existing puppets, cutting the cost to “five figures.”
Mahon wanted to make her “more nasty and gritty,” he says. “We’re trying to be a bit more realistic than cartoony.” It’s a plant with a lot going on. “She contains coziness and warmth, sexiness and charm, but also danger,” Mahon says.
Audrey II’s rapid-growth fertilizer is human blood. That’s the key to this musical, which blends black comedy, a Faustian bargain, and social commentary about greed and morality and still sends audiences out the door humming. The show, which morphed into a movie in 1986, continues to be a staple at high schools (it’s on the list of the top 10 most produced in 2019) as well as community and regional theaters. A version ran on Broadway in 2003.
That’s a mirror of society. “The themes of the show—human nature and greed—are timeless,” says Mahon. “People don’t change.”
But Audrey IIs do. Mike Donahue, director of the Pasadena Playhouse production, starring George Salazar (Be More Chill) as the misfit Seymour and officially opening on Sept. 25, wanted to take the puppet in a different direction.
He pored through various sources for creative juice. “The original Jim Henson-esque Audrey II puppet is incredible,” Donahue says. “We wanted to create something enchanting and fascinating and otherworldly and totally unlike anything else in this drab, beat-up, dead-end flower shop. So the look of the plant is different in this production.”
He adds: “We looked at a lot of horror movies, everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Aliens to Puppet Master to Stranger Things. We wanted her to reveal herself and move in ways that are newly dangerous and sinister.”
There’s no green, no avocado shape, according to puppet designer Sean Cawelti. “One of the biggest inspirations was birds of paradise and other tropical plants,” he says. “And a lot of tropical plants have things that feel phallic and vaginal and sexual—as well as very alien and odd. That was a main goal.”
Another aim was making Audrey II’s teeth more unsettling, so they looked to Star Wars’ Sarlacc Pit, which has rows and rows of chompers. And they gave her more to do in the story by making her less pot-bound.
Hence, five puppeteers operate 30 puppets that come in two categories: reality and the world inside Seymour’s head. “The production has a Fight Club element baked in,” says Cawelti. “There’s a mix of what’s actually happening and what’s in Seymour’s mind.”
It took about three months and a five-figure budget to create the various puppet types: shadow, large-scale cable-controlled, glove, remote-controlled, animatronic, and riffs on bunraku. “A big goal was to allow the puppets to move fluidly through the space.”
Riley, known for no-nonsense Mercedes on Glee, provides the voice of the plant. “Audrey II is unbelievably effective at manipulating Seymour,” says Donahue, adding that Riley makes the plant “a strong, tough-love, maternal presence” for the motherless Seymour.
Like Mayer, Donahue sees Little Shop as a rich mix of comedy and poignance, as well as commentary. “The show is a pretty bald critique of capitalism,” he says. “Everything the plant is offering—money, success, fame, material things—make it a story that’s right for this moment.”
To contact the author of this story: Joe Dziemianowicz in New York at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Rovzar at firstname.lastname@example.org
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