AURORA | There’s an adage that’s well known in theater circles, a pithy guide for stress-free and effective casting.
“‘Never act with a dog or a child, because they’ll always take the focus,’” recited Steve Wilson, artistic director of the PHAMALy theater company, before adding another culprit to the list. “A puppet the size of a Volkswagen is also going to take focus.”
Wilson and the PHAMALy troupe won’t shy away from that onstage risk for their upcoming production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” a musical that’s set to feature five puppet incarnations of a man-eating plant from outer space named Audrey II. The largest puppet of the set, all designed by Cory Gilstrap, will measure 16 feet tall and require multiple operators to control its pods, roots and massive jaws.
“The situation is unbelievably outlandish, and sharing the stage with our wonderful actors is this massive puppet,” Wilson said. “The key issue with the plant is to remember that it is a character in the play.”
It’s a central conceit of the macabre musical penned by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, a show that’s become a beloved standard of the stage since it debuted off-Broadway in 1983. In the countless revivals on international stages and in the 1986 film adaptation, the plot has hinged on making the killer plant a vibrant and convincing character, a villain with a convincing amount of personality and depth.
But Wilson and the cast see a deeper meaning than the show’s gallows humor and larger-than-life monster. For members of PHAMALy, the country’s only handicapped performing arts organization, the show’s basic themes about a population that’s undervalued and overlooked seem to stand out.
“I always go back to ‘Skid Row’ and think that we, as people in the disabled community, have our own skid row,” said Don Mauck, the Aurora-based actor who’ll provide the voice of Audrey II. Mauck, who is blind, makes ties to one of the show’s opening tunes, a song that details out a community apart, a population that’s seen plenty of hard times. “A lot of the people who are in this show are unemployed, they’re on disability, they’re on fixed incomes. In some ways, they’re one step away from being on skid row. I see a parallel to that … For them to be doing that song, it speaks a lot to how close a lot of people in the disabled community are to being there.”
The show centers around Seymour, a hopelessly nerdy orphan who’s working at Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists when he discovers a “strange and interesting” plant in the wholesale flower district after a total eclipse of the sun.
“Seymour is a nerdy man’s dream role. It’s such a quirky love story,” said Daniel Traylor, who plays the lead male role. “They throw out a lot of deaf jokes in the script; it’s perfect,” added Traylor, who has severe hearing loss and relies on lip reading in conversation, “It’s these two people who have been put down all their lives for no good reason, other than where they live. They can’t escape that, and you can’t escape disability.”
Seymour brings the plant back to Mushnik’s store, hoping the specimen will attract customers and win favor from Audrey, his co-worker who’s bruised and battered by her sadistic boyfriend, a dentist who revels in pain. The plant, named Audrey II in honor of Seymour’s secret crush, starts to attract customers, but only after Seymour discovers that it subsists on human blood.
The macabre jokes and violence kick off from there, with the backing of Alan Menken’s inescapably catchy score. Murder, mutilation and mayhem unroll to the sounds of sweet love tunes like “Suddenly Seymour” and soulful ditties like “Feed Me (Git It).”
“I always love to find pieces that have something to say about a disenfranchised population, because whenever we inhabit that world, I think we add some depth to that message,” Wilson said. “This is a play that if you want to take seriously you can – the hero is seeking to get out of his lot in life, Audrey is abused by her boyfriend and seeking a better place and time. Yet, it’s hilarious.”
The PHAMALY production will stress that duality, Wilson said, with its own distinctive stamps on the production. In addition to the normal inclusion of actors in wheelchairs and toting oxygen tanks, the show will feature slight tweaks to basic production elements. The singing female chorus that offers input on the story and action will swell from three to nine members. All of the Audrey II plants will wear dark glasses, a costume addition that hints at the plant’s lack of sight.
For Mauck, who’ll be providing the killer plant’s words and songs, the touch is “way cool.” Mauck will work with the puppeteers to sync his vocal performance with the demanding logistics of the multiple puppets, a task that’s been an early challenge in rehearsals.
“My challenges are going to be much more than people would think. I have to be spot-on with what I do so that the poor puppet isn’t left doing something that I’m not,” Mauck said. “Not being onstage, being up in this box totally removed from what’s going on downstage is going to be unique.”
But apart from the challenges of staging the show in the Space Theatre’s in-the-round confines, the show will offer the cast a chance to put their own spin on a story that’s earned the status of a standard in the world of theater. Kathi Wood, who plays Audrey in the show, has been in previous productions, but has always been cast as one of the Ronettes. Working with a company that’s willing to give her a greater range was a big draw to the show, she said.
“My parallel with Audrey in the sense of having a hidden disability is that she wants to look beautiful and perfect on the outside,” said Wood, who suffers from anxiety and mood disorders. “I’ve had to do that for years. PHAMALY has helped me grow into the person I want to be, instead of having a mask on the outside for others.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707
“Little Shop of Horrors”
Runs from July 12 to Aug. 5 at the Space Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 1101 13th St.
Tickets start at $30.
Information: 303-575-0005 or phamaly.org