28 and 29 December 2014
Stephen Sondheim’s maxim “content dictates form” comes into play when constructing a production of any musical. But questions about the proper form can arise with content-crazy musicals such as The Rocky Horror Show, Batboy: The Musical or Hairspray. If a strong, unified form is not followed, the audience ends up sitting through a two-hour Saturday Night Live sketch with an intermission. It’s more boring than being alive.
Consider the content of Little Shop of Horrors, which includes a laughing gas inhaling, sadistic dentist; a Doo-wop girl group (Crystal, Ronnette, and Chiffon) acting as Greek Chorus; and a man-eating plant straight out of a 50’s Sci-Fi drive-in flick. The show’s content is a patchwork of affectionate musical pastiches ranging from a Borscht Belt tango to a longing ballad about middle class suburbia. Endless references including Donna Reed, Howdy Dowdy, Hula Hoops and conga lines also line this musical’s fabric. To shepherd this crazy mix from rehearsal hall to production stage, a light touch with serious intentions isn’t only needed, it’s necessary.
The easiest, and most limiting, form to cram all of this outrageous content into is Camp. Susan Sontag in her numbered thesis “Notes on Camp” notes that “Camp says everything in ‘quotation marks’” and that a large element in Camp is artifice. Camp is a form of deliberate and self-acknowledged theatricality. For a Monty Python bit, Camp as form becomes a heady concoction. But a full-length musical, no matter its ingredients, needs an emotional center to keep both the cast grounded and the audience engaged. Emotional content needs more than artifice in order to connect with the 550 people sitting in the dark, facing the stage. Hamlet got it wrong. The form’s the thing, not the play.
The musical’s director Sean Daniels defines its form as “joyous throughout” but “there’s a weight.” In Little Shop of Horrors, you “kill to get what you want; kill to keep what you have.” And there’s also that dark underlying question concerning the American Dream, can you get “out of the class you’re in?”
It’s the perfect fit. Pouring this musical’s seemingly effervescent content into this serious form is in Audrey II’s roots. The original Off-Broadway production opened in 1982 when New York City was down and dirty. This was a time before Disney and Bubba Gump Shrimp moved in and made Times Square a bland open-air mall. Many at that time were desperately waiting for a drop from President Reagan’s trickle-down theory. This gritty underlying mood of the show’s DNA is even more relevant when considering today’s headlines and challenging New Economy. What’s going on in Mushnik’s flower shop on Skid Row is also going on in various forms all around us. In Daniels’s vision of Little Shop of Horrors, reality grounds the campy content. As the girl group Greek Chorus scrambles for the dollar bills tossed at them by a heartless agent, audience members may notice the tattered, soiled We Accept Cash sign taped to the flower shop’s cash register. The writing’s on the wall for those who wish to read it. It’s eat or be eaten.
Over a five-hour period that stretches over two days, with a handful of breaks sprinkled in, the numbers “Suddenly, Seymour,” “Suppertime” and “The Meek Shall Inherit” are put on their feet and run through again and again and again and again. Each time a grand move or a small gesture is reviewed, rethought, reworked. The risk-free atmosphere of Geva Theatre Center’s rehearsal room is conducive to creative ideas being discovered and immediately absorbed into the musical’s form. The language of the rehearsal space speaks to this sense of group discovery. “Want to try that all again?” “Can I go back?” “I’m looking for a button.” “Gotcha.” “Go home and just think about it.” “As long as we get there.” “That’s the shape of it.” “We’ll figure it out.” “We don’t need to correct problems we don’t have.” “As good as we’re gonna get right now.” “I love the aesthetic of a real machete.” It’s a hothouse of cross-pollinating ideas where happy accidents abound.
The show’s 11 o’clock number, “Suddenly, Seymour,” is an example of the reality of the moment trumping the artificial and cartoonish. Daniels starts the number with Seymour (Will Blum) at stage right and Audrey (Kristen Megelkoch) planted stage left. All three share ideas of the characters being flustered then unflustered. They’re both “risking something.” Seymour is “steeling” himself. As the duet continues and voices soar, there’s “sustained eye contact” and then the clasping of hands. On the song’s line, repeated five times, “With sweet understanding” the choreographer (Wendy Seyb) adds a spinning embrace. Daniels shares with Blum and Megelkoch that “Somewhere That’s Green” in Act I connects with “Suddenly, Seymour.” He continues that the kiss that closes “Suddenly, Seymour” is “the happiest moment in the show.”
During the staging of “Suppertime,” the relationship between Seymour and his boss Mr. Mushnik (Danny Rutigliano) is fleshed out. A newly forged father/son relationship is more clearly defined. Rutigliano delivers the line “Then come with me to the police and tell them that” with an honest warmth. His Mushnik smiles at one point and pats Seymour on the back. Rutigliano shares with Blum and Daniels, there’s a “we’re going to get through this together” feeling that Mushnik’s sharing with Seymour.
The emotional weight of Act II continues with the shaping of “The Meek Shall Inherit.” Seymour’s lyrics, “If life were tawdry and impoverished as before/she might not like me/she might not want me/without my plant, she might not want me anymore!” are delivered with a stirring compassion. Blum allows the melancholy moment to rush through him and into the audience. The number closes later with the sashaying Doo wop girl group, Greek Chorus (Trista Dollison, Talitha Farrow, and Gavyn Pickens) singing, “You know the meek are gonna get what’s comin’ to’ em!/ By…and…by!” And when’s the last time a Greek Chorus got it wrong?
Geva Theatre Center’s Stage Door Project introduces high school students to the process of theatrical production by allowing access to rehearsals. At the beginning of a 10-minute break, a student actor playing Mushnik in a high school production steps up to Geva’s Mushnick. Rutigliano recommends to this high school Mushnik counterpart to allow just “a tiny bit of Jackie Mason” but he warns the young actor to be careful of swerving into caricature. “Play it real” and not “caricature,” he advises. “Sing-songy is phony, not honest.” Rutigliano closes the meet-up with, “Think honesty first; tell the story.”
His thoughtful advice brings to mind the previous day’s rehearsal when Mushnik was hunched over in the jaws of Audrey II for the first time – don’t ask. Daniels, Rutigliano and Raymond Carr (Audrey II’s puppeteer) were all figuring out the scene. Rutigliano, while crammed into a giant Venus flytrap from outer space, took a moment and quietly muttered to no one in particular, “so it makes sense.” The joy of Little Shop of Horrors is its dashes of kitsch and camp, but Geva Theatre Center’s production’s overall form is honesty first; then tell a heck of a story.