Graffiti, stray animals and a dark flower shop sit on Skid Row. Flowers scatter the floor and a sign marked “Mushnik’s” dangles from the ceiling. With the arrival of a certain carnivorous plant, Court Square Theater is transformed into a “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“Come for the singing and dancing, stay for the manslaughter,” Sarah Butzen, the lead actress in the production, said.
Valley Playhouse, a community theater troupe in Harrisonburg, will run the horror-comedy musical “Little Shop of Horrors” from Oct. 20-23. Originally a 1960 film, Howard Ashman adapted the story for an off-Broadway musical in 1986, which eventually made it to Broadway. A failing florist finds sudden success with a suspicious plant, Audrey II — named after Butzen’s character and the florist’s crush, Audrey — that thrives on human blood. As Seymour, the florist (played by alumnus Chris Meyers (’11)), rises in fame and fortune, people mysteriously disappear one by one on Skid Row.
Valley Playhouse was initially founded by JMU faculty in 1966. Today, the show’s cast and crew take immense pride in the professionalism of their productions, according to Gail S. Arthur, producer of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“You know if it’s a professional theater, I don’t think you’re going to find it that different,” Arthur said. “I think they’ll have an easier time with making the changes because usually they have, you know, mechanical sets and things and we don’t have that to do that manipulations, but in terms of quality of the sets, quality of actors — you’re not going to see differences.”
Chief among these technical challenges is the manipulation of several puppets as the man-eating plant grows from a potted windowsill plant to a monster overcoming the entire shop.
“It’s a process,” J.P. Gulla, the director, said. “But our two puppeteers that are in the back of the puppet, there’s a guider who guides people down that are eaten by the puppet and then there’s two vine or root people.”
Stuck on Skid Row, a poor area in downtown Los Angeles, Seymour believes the plant’s popularity will be his ticket away to a life with Audrey. As Audrey II grows, it tempts Seymour into committing murder to feed it. With each murder, Audrey II grows stronger and hungrier for more human blood. Creating the plant takes collaboration and imagination.
Although there’s plenty of human drama, much of the show is dominated by the giant plant occupying the stage. Every puppet is painted with intricate red, white and green detail, with each becoming larger and more menacing than its predecessor. Crafted by a high school in Amherst County, Virginia, the largest Audrey II puppet takes five people to operate and weighs several hundred pounds.
“I’m a director by trade,” Gulla said. “So I have my degree in this kind of stuff and I think that college students really add a lot to bringing new energy to what we have.”
The entire production team is composed of local residents. With actors from Eastern Mennonite University and JMU, both alumni and current students, this production combines young actors from both sides of the train tracks. The production’s stage manager, Rebecca Moreira, is a JMU freshman and took on a great part in the show’s many aspects, according to Gulla.
“The music is great as far as the story goes,” Meyers said. “You can’t be too serious of a person. There are a lot of lines in here that if you’re not paying attention you’ll miss the joke.”
Although the production is open to all theater-goers, Meyers believes that fans of comedy will especially love the show because of it’s subtle humor.
“Whether you really follow theatrical productions as musical theater or you don’t, it’s a really entertaining show for anybody,” Meyers said.
Valley Playhouse prides itself on its strong connection with the Harrisonburg community. During the first run of “Little Shop of Horrors,” the production invited audience members to donate canned food as payment for the show, which will go to Blessed Sacrament Food Pantry. In addition, the production will have a pay-what-you-will performance to make the show accessible to everyone.
“We’re doing more than we’ve ever done before when it comes to community outreach and I think it’s really important to give back,” Gulla said.
Through these collaborations, the Valley Playhouse hopes to continue their positive relationship with the community.
Valley Playhouse wants, “to encourage the community to kind of stretch your creative genetics a little bit and get involved,” Arthur said.
Contact Teresa Cummings and Carrie Domenic at firstname.lastname@example.org.