Nick A. Olivero, who is staging and designing the environmental set for Little Shop, is also the artistic director of Boxcar Theatre, which he describes as a "director's theatre," where familiar works are viewed from new angles thanks to the imagination of eager new directors.
Ambitious stagings of classics like Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in repertory, as well as Peter Shaffer's Equus, and a hit stage adaptation of Clue, have brought audiences into the small 49-seat theatre in what Olivero calls San Francisco's own skid row, located on Natoma and 6th Street.
"People are drawn in by the familiarity of the shows, but we offer them something different," Olivero told Playbill.com. "They've seen Little Shop five-million times, and it's about time that there's something new that goes on with it."
"Our neighborhood is in skid row, and it made sense to do something kind of dark and grimy. It's this great Faustian story. And our production is incredibly dark," Olivero said of the new staging of Little Shop, which he has set in the present day.
To cash in on Boxcar's location, Olivero and his team have obtained permits from the city to perform the opening song "Skid Row" on the actual street, with a flash mob chorus employed solely for the first number and live musicians al fresco. The audience will literally enter Little Shop, with the lobby conceived as the shop itself (shattered windows and all) and the entire theatre transformed into the backroom of Mushnik's dilapidated store. Clever use of security cameras will help the audience catch the action in both rooms. The audience will also be hustled back into the street during "Closed for Renovations," as the entire theatre and store are spruced up, just in time for the arrival of Orin (the dentist), who will roll up on a motorcycle and perform on top of a car. "It's pretty wild," Olivero laughed.
Adding to their ambition, Boxcar is building Audrey II, the infamous man-eating plant from outer space, from scratch. Gone is the classic avocado design familiar in both the stage and film production, and in its place is a Venus Flytrap look, which has given the pod more mobility and a new voice. Along with Audrey's traditional physical appearance went the familiar R&B voice (made famous by Ron Taylor and Levi Stubbs on stage and screen).
"That was one of the hardest things to conceive. I was stuck on the voice, I didn't want to do what had been done," Olivero said. After passing on ideas of a Johnny Cash or Elvis-style voice, Olivero devised an idea that Audrey II would speak and sing with the voice of its last victim, from Orin, to Mushnik, to Audrey and Seymour. But that left him hanging on what voice the plant would have before it tasted flesh.
"I thought, well it's a baby plant, so we need a kid to do it," he said. Four different youngsters, needed to cover six performances a week, have been enlisted to perform the voice during "Feed Me (Git It)."
The darker take on Little Shop, which does away with notions of camp, to play for a sort of grindhouse-style realism, "is really rooted in the script," Olivero said. "I had to ask myself 'How do people deal with living in these surroundings?'"
Those notions are being explored within the cast of Little Shop. Seymour is no longer a nebbishy geek, but a big tattooed guy, who is down on his luck and has been pushed around his whole life; Audrey's "Somewhere That's Green" may be induced by a few prescription painkillers after a run-in with her boyfriend; Mushnik hits the bottle; and Orin the dentist arrives with plenty of blood in store.
Olivero said that his goal was to remain true to the script, but to "re-imagine the familiar" and provide "a real rawness and realness to Little Shop."
Audiences will get to find out when Little Shop of Horrors opens for business May 20 for a run through June 26. Olivero says to stay until the end to catch the World Botanical Enterprises infomercial on how to buy one's very own Audrey II.
The cast includes John R. Lewis as Seymour, Bryn Laux as Audrey, Alex Shafer as Mushnik, Kevin Clarke as Orin, Nikki Arias as Ronnette, Lauren Spencer as Crystal, Kelly Sanchez as Chiffon and ensemble members Amy Lizardo, Melinda Campero, Sarah Savage, Myers Clark and Brook Robinson.
David Möschler serves as music director, with choreography by Lisa Tateosian, lighting design by Mark D'Angelo, sound design by Alan Chang, costume design by Amy Knight, puppet creations by Greg Frisbee and Thomas John, and video design by Viral Media Network.
Little Shop of Horrors features music by Menken, with book and lyrics by the late Ashman. Based on the 1960 cult movie of the same name, the musical version debuted Off-Broadway at WPA Theatre in 1982 and was later made into a 1986 musical film. It arrived on Broadway in 2003.
For tickets, visit BoxcarTheatre.