Easily book your tickets for “Little Shop of Horrors” here.
The latest offering from City Repertory Theatre in Palm Coast is a musical about a deadly plague threatening to consume the planet.
No, it’s not a Covid -era creation. And, despite the protests of director John Sbordone, despite that death and murder and mayhem and – yikes! – a sadistic dentist abound in the play, it’s actually a comedy. OK, it’s a science fiction/horror/black comedy.
It’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” that 1982 musical loosely based on a 1960 horror-comedy flick by Roger Corman, that king of B-movies. The City Rep production, which Sbordone says is the “most expensive show CRT has ever done” in its 10-year history, opens Friday Nov. 27 and runs weekends through Dec. 6 outdoors at the Palm Coast Arts Foundation in Town Center, with additional performances tentatively scheduled Dec. 11-13 if ticket demand warrants it.
“Little Shop” tells the outlandish tale of a timid skid-row florist shop worker named Seymour, who has a crush on his pretty blonde coworker Audrey, who in turn endures an abusive relationship with Orin, a dentist for whom the term “pain-inflicting” evokes Nero, literally the mirror-image of his name. As a chorus of street urchins comment on the action, Seymour’s life is disrupted when he discovers that the plant he is nurturing, which he names Audrey II, thrives on human blood. Things get out of hand as the plant grows larger and larger, and Seymour realizes Audrey II is not only sentient but has a taste for human flesh as well.
“John will tell you that he picked this show because of the allegory – the plant is allegorical to the pandemic,” says Joey Maxwell, whose stentorian voice makes Darth Vader sound like Pee-wee Herman. Audrey II is “a force that is taking over and eating the world alive.” (She has ancestry: you may recall “The Day of the Triffids,” the 1951 novel and 1962 movie about genocidal plants taking over the planet with pandemic efficiency.)
It’s Maxwell who will be giving voice to the homicidal plant, while puppeteer Zachary Loucks will be inside the 60-pound, eight-foot-long adult version of Audrey II in order to animate the beastie.
“Everybody who thinks this play is funny is wrong,” Sbordone says, leaving one to wonder how deep his tongue is in his cheek. The fact that he doesn’t over-sell that view provides a clue to where he’s coming from: The play, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics and book by Howard Ashman, boasts a depth that goes deeper than the schlocky horror of a people-eating plant.
“ ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is based on ancient Greek models,” Sbordone says. “I went to school with Howard Ashman at Indiana University and this is the kind of stuff we studied – tragedy and comedy. The chorus, those street urchins, are so fundamental to the play, and I’m sure Howard learned that at Indiana University — about the Greek chorus and how to integrate them into the action.”
Likewise, there is more than meets the eye in the very staging of “Little Shop,” which will be outdoors and under a tent at the Palm Coast Arts Foundation’s pavilion in Town Center, with social distancing and masks expected of the audience, and a dry spell demanded of the skies.
When is live theater not merely live theater? When it takes on the guise of a community service in the midst of what many observers are calling “pandemic fatigue.”
“Everyone is going through such hard times with some people losing their jobs, and there’s just a lot of stress this year surrounding the pandemic,” says Chelsea Jo Conard, a City Rep veteran who portrays Audrey. “It’s always the case for theater, of course, to have something that allows people to be entertained and take them out of their world a little bit. But especially now I think it’s important for people to see something that’s lighthearted and fun and not super-realistic that just takes them out of the world – and obviously for them to feel safe by having it outdoors.”
“Arts organizations have been doing everything they can to continue to provide entertainment for their audiences,” says Maxwell, who owns The Studio Creative Group, an Emmy-nominated film and photography studio with headquarters in downtown Deland.
“I think right now everybody is a little burned out on Zoom cabarets,” he adds with a sardonic laugh. “It’s getting a little exhausting. There’s no other escape in the world like coming to see live theater. Right now those opportunities are so incredibly rare that I hope people come out and see the show and take advantage of that, in a safe environment in a really unique space. They’ll see a show that’s light and funny and lets you laugh and have that moment of escapism that I think we all really need.”
Zachary’s brother Alexander Loucks, a Jacksonville resident who lost his bookstore job due to the pandemic economic downturn, portrays Seymour.
“It’s important for people to get a little sense of normalcy back – just a little bit during this, because everybody’s cooped up all the time,” Alex says. “There aren’t very many safe outlets to just go out and have a good time for a night.”
Maxwell makes a confession: “Selfishly, for all of us on stage, it’s the same for us. We need that outlet as well. As much as we are happy to be providing that for the audience, it serves the same purpose for us. Yes, we have our lives outside of the theater but we’ve all dedicated our personal time for all of our adult lives to theater. To be able to have a chance and come back out and do that again with something fun and lighthearted – it’s really important to us too to have that same escape.”
Conard, a holistic health and nutrition counselor who co-founded Bodhi + Sol, a spa and wellness center in downtown DeLand, has performed in “Agnes of God” and “Next to Normal” at City Rep, “Sweet Charity” at the Daytona Playhouse, and in numerous other shows by area theaters. But she hesitated when Sbordone approached her to play Audrey.
“I was kind of like ‘John, do you really see me in this role?’ ” Conard says. “I said, ‘OK, you have to convince me of that.’ I’ve had a really fun time with this role. It’s different in a lot of ways than any role I’ve ever played. It’s a funny musical comedy but I think for Audrey there are some real moments.”
Indeed, seeing her carnivorous namesake wreak havoc is not as jolting as when Audrey, all sexy and dolled up to the nines, arrives onstage with a black eye, courtesy of that dentist, played by City Rep vet Beau Wade.
“Audrey is very abused,” Conard says. “She has never had anything good in her life freely. She’s had kind of a sordid past. There’s quite an arc for her in this musical comedy of finding her own confidence and believing in herself and believing that she does deserve love. It’s been fun to find the truth in the character in a funny show.”
Seymour, Loucks says, “has a real duality to him. He’s always struggling against his inner desires and wants versus what’s going on – the devil and the angel tugging on his morality. How much of that is the plant and how much of that is him? The devil seems to be the plant: ‘Oh, it’s the plant that wants me to kill him. What do I want? Do I want to kill him? Maybe, you know. He’s abusing her.’ ”
Seymour “is grateful for what he has, but he always wants more,” Loucks says. “He’s always wanting something different than what he has.”
Maxwell notes he has been “a voice actor my entire adult life,” providing voiceovers for commercials for Visa, TGI Fridays and “some of the largest brands in the world, which is a lot of fun.” But voicing Audrey II “has been a lot more interesting than I expected,” he says.
“On the surface when you look at a role like this, it’s a giant anthropomorphic Brussels sprout that eats people,” Maxwell says. “So, it seems really straightforward. It’s a big, loud character – I’ve got a big, loud voice. But when you actually dig into the show, and props to the way this thing has been written and designed, the plant actually has a lot going on. He is fighting for his own survival and fighting for his ultimate goal of world takeover. His entire existence depends on him being successful at manipulating Seymour into doing these things.
“There’s a lot more depth there than I think people realize, and it lets me have a lot of fun as I manipulate Seymour throughout the show as the voice of the plant.”
So, is Maxwell on the side of the plant?
“Very much so,” he says with a smile. “Eat the rich, absolutely. At times he’s supporting Seymour and at other times he’s dragging him along, trying to manipulate him. That’s a lot of fun to play, and it gives me a lot of dynamic and a lot of room to play with this character, which is a blast.
“And as a musical theater performer, there are very, very few opportunities for a bass-baritone to open up because most of the big male leads are written for tenors. There’s not a lot of opportunities for us low-end guys, so I’ve had a lot of fun just being able to open up my throat and pull out the low bass stuff.”
The Audrey II puppets – the small one and the giant Brussels sprout – are being rented from MisFit Toys Theatrical, a company run by Central Florida freelance technical director Tori Oakes.
The big Audrey II arrived at rehearsals less than 10 days before opening night, and Sbordone says Zachary Loucks “has taken to it amazingly. You can’t do that without a lot of strength. There’s a lot of physicality involved.”
“Zach has to know not only the songs but also my delivery,” Maxwell says. “He’s got this 60-pound, eight-foot tall plant he’s manipulating from the inside and he’s having to mimic my characterization and add his own life on top of it. He blows me away every night.”
“Little Shop of Horrors” will feature live music performed on keys by musical director Ben Beck, a City Rep stalwart whom Sbordone says is the best he’s ever worked with. Sbordone also gives high praise to City Rep co-founder Diane Ellertsen, who is choreographing the musical.
“Little Shop of Horrors” is City Rep’s second live production of the Covid era, following “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” at the Palm Coast Arts Foundation’s outdoor pavilion in early October. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and David Ives’ “All in the Timing” are on the schedule in the coming months, although those productions also will likely be exiled from City Rep’s black box theater home in City Marketplace. The troupe’s annual tradition of staging Shakespeare in the park in February at PCAF is tenuous, Sbordone says, although he reveals that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is under consideration.
One gets the impression that if Sbordone were banished to the Artic Circle, he would still craft theater for polar bears and wolves–what polar bears are left, anyway–but pandemic pressures occasionally reveal themselves. In 2019 City Rep purchased a $1,700 light board, and the troupe recently spent $4,000 on lighting – an expenditure that will save money in the long- or even mid-term given that the theater won’t have to rent them.
Those expenses were offset somewhat when the troupe recently received a $3,000 Cares Small Business Grant, a program administered by Flagler County using funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (ergo, CARES) Act federal stimulus package.
But Sbordone is concerned that City Rep may be at a “make or break” crossroads, he says: “This is an extraordinarily popular show, but it’s also technically complicated and the most expensive show CRT has ever done. We are taking a big chance but we know we are the only game in town. A lot of local theaters just aren’t open right now. The Athens in DeLand certainly is, but otherwise we are it.
“So, we are taking a chance that if we keep audiences socially distanced and safe, they will come and support us. We need this to run three weekends. That third weekend is still optional. If this performs like we think it will, then we will undoubtedly need it. But we don’t know.”
“Little Shop of Horrors,” directed by John Sbordone, music by Alan Menken and lyrics and book by Howard Ashman, starring Alexander Loucks and Chelsea Jo Conrad, music performed live by Ben Beck, choreography by Diane Ellertsen. City Repertory Theatre at 7 p.m. Nov. 27-28 and Dec. 4-5, and 3 p.m. Nov. 29 and Dec. 6. Performances are tentative for 7 p.m. Dec. 11-12 and 3 p.m. Dec. 13. Performances will be at the Palm Coast Arts Foundation pavilion, in Town Center, 1500 Central Ave., Palm Coast. Tickets are $30 general admission, $20 students with ID. Black Friday (Nov. 27) price is two adults for $50. Tickets are easily booked online at crtpalmcoast.com, eventbrite.com, or by calling 386-585-9415 or at the door the day of the show. Masks and social distancing will be enforced.