Austin’s TexArts theater company has cracked the code to creating theater of escapist fancy in tumultuous times. By staging both new and classical musicals that focus on fun and spectacle — with talented casts hamming it up on stage, as in the recent “Xanadu” — the company produces works that provide needed relief for audiences.
TexArts' latest musical production, “Little Shop of Horrors,” has all that plus a singing alien plant. The show's plot might be familiar to most theater fans: Nerdy flower shop employee Seymour (played by Michael Wheeler in this production) pines after his beautiful co-worker, Audrey (played by Leigh Sauvageau). He comes into the possession of a mysterious plant that looks like a Venus flytrap. Naming it Audrey II, Seymour soon learns it has both a taste for blood and a robust singing voice (provided by Roderick Sanford, with Sebastian Garcia serving as the plant's puppeteer).
We caught up with the show’s director, Val Williams, to learn more about what audiences can expect from TexArts' production.
American Statesman: What in particular drew you to directing this production of "Little Shop of Horrors" for TexArts?
Val Williams: I have loved “Little Shop” since I was a kid. To me, it is a nearly perfect musical. Funny and over the top at times, yet beautifully touching and relatable as well. From the minute the prologue begins, we know we’re here to hear an important story — a cautionary tale. The first chord sets us off with excitement and anticipation, and you’re just pulled in right away.
Bringing this show to TexArts specifically is exciting to me because I love creating theater in intimate spaces. To me, theater is about an opportunity to connect. The need to feel something. Share something. Why go see a play or musical instead of just staying home to listen to music or watch a movie? Because of connection — visceral, direct, palpable connection. A shared human experience. That is one of my favorite things about live theater and this show.
One of the things that makes "Little Shop" different from other musicals is that one of the main characters (the plant, Audrey II) is a puppet and often voiced by a different person than the puppeteer. How do you handle that?
It is so much fun to see Audrey II come to life in the hands of our puppeteer, Sebastian Garcia, with Roderick Sanford bringing the voice. We’re lucky because both Sebastian and Roderick have done the roles before, which put us light years ahead.
We spent time figuring how the puppet moves and how we can, within those movement capabilities, create human-like characteristics so that the scene can be played as dynamically as if the human actor was on stage. It’s an interesting journey to act with a puppet, but our cast has jumped right in. I am delighted constantly by how fun it is to see the scene-work play out.
We also had our puppeteer watch the scene from the house and understand what is happening out there before jumping in. I employed a common technique that animators use when working with voice talent — videotaping the voice actor as they work, so the illustrators, or puppeteer in our case, can embody the voice acting in their work.
Many audience members know "Little Shop" from the 1986 film. How does playing against or with such an iconic version of the story influence the choices that you make when mounting this production?
The film is certainly always in my head as an influence, along with many other inspirations. This show is so clever in the way it pulls from cultural and artistic influences of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and then from later influences such as late ’70s/early ’80s funk music, classic musical theater styles and even a touch of Yiddish theater throwback with Mr. Mushnik (Seymour's boss at the flower shop). What is always interesting to me is that, if you notice, despite the retro aesthetic the show often has, there is no specific reference to a real-life time or place. It’s just “Skid Row” or “a city." This is intentional, so that we can feel that it is a story of any time, any place. We like this concept and have kept that element.
In researching the production, I found it exciting to rewatch the 1986 film, as well as the 1960 sci-fi film that was the original inspiration, and then go about considering the work of everything from Broadway and regional productions to even high school productions I’ve seen. My goal as a director is always to keep the storytelling at the forefront, so everything we do needs to be in service to the story. Even flash, glitz and glam must be “earned” within the arc, as we say. Therefore, any inspiration I pull from one version or another, or from my own head, always has a reason grounded in its storytelling purpose.