What Did You Put In The Water? Miracle Gro?

Just over a year ago we were sitting in the auditorium at Van Nuys HS watching their production of “Little Shop of Horrors. It’s a year later, and guess what… we’re in the auditorium of another large theatre also watching “Little Shop of Horrors”. This time the theatre was the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks and the producer was Cabrillo Music Theatre… and the production was anything but a horror—in fact, it was one of the best productions we’ve ever seen at Cabrillo.

Hopefully, after last year, everyone is familiar with the story, but just incase… Little Shop is a retelling of the “classic” 1960 Roger Corwin film, with music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and book by Howard Ashman. It tells the story of Seymour Krelborn, who works in Mushnik’s Flower Shop, a failing store on Skid Row. The shop is run by Mr. Mushnik, Seymour, and Audrey. Business is off, well, OK, there is no business, and Seymour suggest displaying his new exotic plant, which he has named Audrey II. Of course the strange plant draws customers and business is soon booming. In celebration Mushnik invites Seymour and Audrey out on the town, but Audrey has a date with her boyfriend, the sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello. Seymour also declines and stays behind to tend to the suddenly ailing Audrey II. That night, alone in the shop, he discovers the shocking secret to the plant’s health and phenomenal growth: human blood. Seymour encourages the plant’s growth by pricking his fingertips and feeding Audrey II his own blood. This only lasts for a few days, however, and the meager drops of blood aren’t enough for the quickly growing plant. Finally, late one night the plant grows bold and speaks: “feed me.” Eventually, after the nitrous-addicted dentist laughs himself to death, Seymour does. This permits Seymour to confess his love to Audrey. However, Mushnik witnessed Seymour’s crime and threatens to turn him… and so the plant gets fed again. But the ethics of the situation gets to him and he decides to flee. Before Seymour can complete his plan, however, the plant mortally wounds Audrey. Dying, she requests that she be fed to the plant, so she can become a part of it and always be near Seymour. As the music swells, Seymour feeds her to Audrey II, which at last reveals its ultimate plans–nothing less than world domination. Seymour makes one last attempt to kill the plant but fails. In the end, he too is devoured. The singers, joined now by the faces of the dead characters, warn that Audrey II and other alien plants have begun to devour the world one city at a time–starting with Cleveland… (note that the movie wimps out, and Seymour lives).

As I said at the top, the Cabrillo production was excellent, and this excellence came from a combination of excellent ingredients that built upon the already wonderful story and music just described. Let’s start with the direction and the casting, which was great. Leading the ensemble were Jim Holdridgeæ as Seymour and Callie Carson as Audrey. We’ve seen Holdridge before in “Life Could Be A Dream”, where he honed his nerdish nebbish to perfection. Carson is new to us. Both were exceptionally strong singers and actors (dance doesn’t particularly play into this production), and were a joy to watch. It is hard to pick particular numbers to highlight for these folks, as all were great. Commenting on the action were the Ronnettes: Nicole Tillman (Ronnette), Robyn Michelle Jackson (Chiffon), and Domonique Paton (Crystal)—again, strong singers and movers, with movement that enhanced the story. Rounding out the face cast were Damon Kirscheæ (Orin Scrivello D.D.S. and others), Gibby Brandæ (Mushnik), Michael Conoscenti (Derelict) and Nick Newkirk (Dental Patient). Under the direction of Lewis Wilkenfeld (choreography by John Charron), these talented actors became their characters while still having fun with their roles. It was just a delight to watch them.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Of course, what makes LSOH is Audrey II. The physical plants were constructed by Musical Theatre West, and I’m guessing there were 5-6 sizes (the original small plant; the one held by Seymour, the one sitting on the table, the medium Audrey II from the latter part of Act I, and the big and BIGGER Audrey IIs from Act II). But going beyond the physical plant were the actors inside and outside: Kameren Chase Nealæ as the voice of Audrey II, and James W. Gruessing as the person manipulating the puppets. These two brought the plant to life and gave it personality; they made you wonder “how the hell did they do that?”. They were just great.

Building upon this acting base was an excellent technical team, which started from the excellent Musical Theatre West base (which provided both costumes and sets) and built upon the skills of technical director Dan Healey (who came from the Pasadena Playhouse). The sound design by Cabrillo regular Jonathan Burke was clear and had nary a glitch. The lighting by Michael Tachco was a step above the Cabrillo norm. Aside from some odd lighting on Audrey II during “Feed Me”, it was spectacular. I particular remember the lighting on “Dentist” and “Somewhere That’s Green”—the former has one of the best uses of moving lights I’ve seen, and the latter used the spots and color particularly well. I also appreciated the lighting during the end number. Christine Gibson served as Wardrobe Supervisor, and Paul Hadobas did hair and makeup design.

The excellent orchestra just added to the production. Under the direction of Matthew Smedal, the five-piece ensemble (Smedal on Keyboard, Lloyd Cooper on Keyboard Synthesizer, Dave Winstone on Acoustic and Electric Guitar, Steve Bringelson on Electric Bass, and Dave Lotfi on Set Drums) filled the auditorium with wonderful sounds, seeming to be much larger than it was.

Holding everything together and keeping things running smooth were the “ever capable” Lindsay Martens (Production Stage Manager) and Allie Roy (Assistant Stage Manager). I had hoped to be able to stop by at the stage door afterwards and say “hi” to Lindsay (who we last saw at “The Story of My Life”), but the rest of our party wanted to get home. Ah, the perils of Saturday night, especially the week before the AP Stats exam :-).

The last performance of “Little Shop of Horrors” at Cabrillo is this evening. You can purchase tickets through their website.

Season Announcement: As I mentioned a few days ago, Cabrillo has announced their 2010-2011 season, which my daughter characterized as “The 1950s and Nazis”: “Happy Days: The Musical” (October 22-31, 2010); “The Marvelous Wonderettes” (February 4-13, 2011); “The Producers” (April 8-17, 2011); and “The Sound of Music” (July 22-31, 2011), with an optional holiday show running December 26-30, 2010. Happy Days really isn’t as bad as it might appear: I’ve heard the music and it is quite good (which is unexpected for a sitcom transfer). I’m unsure how they are going to do Wonderettes: I’m just imagining the prom voting in a 3,000 seat theatre! I’m also surprised they aren’t doing Winter Wonderettes, but perhaps that will be their holiday show. The production of the The Producers should be good: they are using the sets, costumes, and props from the National tour, which combined with Cabrillo’s powerful casting and dance should be great. As for Sound of Music, this is always a crowd pleaser, and they can build upon their last performance in the 2000-2001 season. Season pricing is quite good, from $263/season for premium orchestra to $54/season for balcony seats (actually, that’s $108/season with a “Buy 1 Get 1” deal—something that cannot be beat!).

Upcoming Theatre. This afternoon, Karen and Erin are off to Newhall for “12 Angry Men” at Reperatory East Playhouse, while I get ready for a Games Night at Temple that I’m running. The weekend of May 8 sees Karen and me at the So Cal Ren Faire on Saturday. The weekend of May 15 sees the CDF Conference for Karen and Erin, followed by The 39 Steps” at the Ahmanson at 8pm. The next weekend takes Erin to the Ren Faire, while we see the May installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre (May 16). The casting for that was just announced: Joe Bologna as St. Augustine of Hippo, Hayley DuMond as Empress Theodora, Keith Carradine as Thomas Jefferson, T. B. Announced as Bertrand Russell, and Gary Cole as Steve Allen). The fourth weekend in May brings the Spring Dance Show at Van Nuys HS (May 20-22). The last weekend in May brings the Bat Mitzvah of a family friend, as well as “The Wedding Singer” at Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall (May 30 @ 2pm). June so far is mostly open, although I’m expecting that we’ll see “South Pacific” at the Ahmanson on June 13, and the June “Meeting of Minds” on June 20. As for July, the month starts with “In The Heights” at the Pantages on July 3. The next weekend (July 10 @ 8pm) is the first show of the 2010-2011 Colony season, “Grace & Glorie”. That weekend may also bring “It’s Top Secret”, a musical that is part of the Festival of New American Musicals, running Jun 19-July 18 at the NoHo Arts Center (likely July 11). July will also bring ; “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at REP East on July 17 (pending ticketing); a possible July “Meeting of Minds, and “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on July 24. Plus July will also likely bring some ventures out to the Hollywood Bowl.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.