The more theatrical productions I see, the more I
understand that a script — plus songs in the case of a musical — is less
a prescription to be followed than it is an invitation to creativity.
It's like a page in a coloring book. Adding vivid, interesting colors is
up to the director and actors — and you can draw outside the lines.
That’s pretty much what I observed in Rocklin Community Theatre’s
opening night of Little Shop of Horrors. I had seen this show a
couple of times before, and I’d even seen the movie version. But what I
saw last night was something else.
The last production I saw at Rocklin Community Theatre
involved teenage actors — excellent teenage actors. The cast in
Little Shop of Horrors are all adults, and they bring
professional-quality singing and acting to this story of a man-eating
plant from outer space. It’s been called a “horror rock musical,” though
the “horror” isn’t really scary. RCT’s production was played like a
farce, with brilliant comic acting (and over-acting) that kept me and
the people around me laughing for the better part of 2 hours.
The Directors’ Note in the program put us in the
audience on notice: “We wanted to make it a production to remember…. We
dared our cast and production team to dream…. Like the show itself,
nothing you see tonight is bound to tradition…. Every one of us is
passionate about this production.” The passion was apparent in
everything I saw, a show abundant in creativity, and that creativity
started well before the house lights went down. Ten minutes before the
start, while audience members were finding their seats, reading their
programs or sitting and chatting, an actor in shabby dress and carrying
a wine bottle staggered to the stage, fell face down and remained
motionless. I think I was the only one who noticed — at least for
several minutes. Then another “drunk” worked his way through the
audience, interacting with many of us, while three women tried to sell
us old magazines before they moved to the stage and started writing on
the wall of the set. It was clear that we were on skid row, and it was
also clear that we could expect the unexpected.
The character development in this show was one of its
many strengths. Flower shop proprietor, Joel Porter as Mushnik was the
archetypical Jewish shop owner (with accent to match). Cassie March, as
Audrey the ditzy blond shop assistant, brought a whiny voice and
Brooklyn accent that were perfect for the part, along with an energetic
walk that looked like her legs were loosely tied together at the ankles.
Kevin Caravalho as Seymour, the nebbish who takes care of Audrey II, the
evil plant, was the focal point of nearly every scene — and deservedly
so: he was acting, inhabiting his character, every moment, and it came
through in an indescribable repertoire of head-to-toe comic gestures.
Then there was Bobby Grainger, who played many
characters. His first appearance as the cartoonish plant-buyer who
started the flower shop on its path to success was so unexpected and
unabashedly wacky that we in the audience couldn’t stop laughing. He
next appeared in his principal role as the sadistic dentist, Orin, but
instead of entering on a motorcycle as was probably suggested in the
script, he came down the center aisle of the theater on a Razor scooter.
That was just the beginning of his hilarious, swaggering Elvis
Presley-style character which culminated in his two big musical numbers,
“Be a Dentist” and “Now (It’s Just the Gas)” which were screamingly
funny, as in the latter number he laughed himself to death. But
afterward he reappeared as numerous other characters to tempt Seymour
with fame: a female Life magazine reporter, a gay talent agency
representative, a tycoon with a Texan drawl and maybe another character
or two. I can’t tell; I was laughing too hard. Each character had a
different persona and a different accent, and I’m sure Bobby Grainger
could put on a one-man comedy revue.
The plant, Audrey II, was represented by puppets of
different sizes, controlled by two puppeteers (Brooke Blatnick and Jason
Rudeen) and voiced by Andy Hyun, a true voice artist who not only gave
incredible character to Audrey II’s lines (with a wicked, wicked laugh)
but had a singing voice to match the other excellent voices in the cast,
often pulling up bass tones that were really intimidating.
I’ve talked about acting and directing as if they were
the greatest strengths of this production, but it’s a toss-up which was
more impressive: the acting or the singing. The singing started with the
women’s trio of Natasha Greer, Cassie Guthrie, and Marlise Dizon. In
that first number, Natasha Greer displayed such a powerful voice as to
make me utter an involuntary “Wow!” to which those around me nodded in
agreement. But each member of the trio had a solo part that showed off
her excellent voice. And after hearing each member of the cast sing, I
have to conclude that the quality of the singing in this show was simply
remarkable. And it wasn’t just the quality of the singing, but the
effectiveness of singing in character, and the excellent ‘60s rock
styling that was present in so many numbers. This was especially true of
Kevin Caravalho. As Seymour he was in almost every musical number,
and his singing was often truly impressive.
Then there was the choreography. This was mostly in
the moves of the women’s trio which were often reminiscent of the
actions of the singers in the girl groups of the 50s and 60s. Beyond
that, though, it felt like the choreography was really integral to the
show. The actors didn’t seem like they were stopping to do pre-planned
dance moves: they moved naturally and interestingly, reflecting the mood
of the music and what was dictated by the plot. I have to add that that
the women’s trio was more than back-up singing and cute dance moves.
They were, collectively, a key character in the show: street people with
attitude, subversive sirens, sympathetic friends, a detached Greek
chorus, or a conscience (either the angel on one shoulder or the devil
on the other). All these parts (at least as I imagined them) were played
I have always been impressed with the live bands at
Rocklin Community Theatre productions, and once again, the 5-piece band
under the direction of Peter Kagstrom filled Finn Hall with an authentic
60s rock-and-roll sound.
So much of what I’ve mentioned so far is evidence of
the creative genius of co-directors, Mike Mechanick and Steve Gold. One
more of their clever touches was the integration of video into the
action of the show. There were 5 or 6 occasions when a large screen was
opened at the right of the stage to show how Seymour first found the
plant or how Audrey imagined her house in the country. These were clever
interludes that opened the possibility of combining actors with graphics
and animation. Then there were so many subtle, little things that added
to the fun of the show. For example, Seymour gives the crying Audrey a
Kleenex to wipe her tears. She does so, but also blows her nose a couple
of times and hands the mess back to Seymour. Later, there’s a tender
exchange between Seymour and Audrey, he closes his eyes and leans
forward to kiss her, but she has headed for the door, and missing her,
he almost falls before opening his eyes. But along with such subtleties
were the big comedic inventions, such as the staging of the finale. The
song was the upbeat “Don’t Feed the Plants,” and the way it was staged
seemed totally fresh to me. Everyone who had been eaten by Audrey II
appeared with zombie make-up and dress, and then they (plus backstage
people) brought their zombie song and dance out into the audience to the
delight (and maybe a little discomfort) of all.
Rocklin Community Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors
was not a staging of the show, so much as a reinvention of it: fresh,
thoroughly entertaining, professionally performed, and loads of fun. I
almost missed seeing it, and missing this particular comedy would have
been a tragedy.