INSIDE LITTLE SHOP Part 2: Puppet Power!

INSIDE LITTLE SHOP Part 2: Puppet Power!

(Photo: Director Jonathan Berry talks to Audrey Two puppeteer Matthew Sitz)

In this 4-part series, Assistant Director Elyse Dolan takes us behind the scenes of American Blues Theater’s production of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, directed by Jonathan Berry.

Part 1: Welcome to the Little Shop

Less than two weeks in and we have this “Mean Green Mother” on its feet or… er, on its vines, rather. This musical has more moving parts than Audrey Two has victims, but with puzzle-like scheduling orchestrated by Stage Manager Dana Nestrick, we’ve been able to divide and conquer in order to best use our rehearsal time.

This week we began working with the two larger Audrey Two puppets, and we were all surprised at how big they truly are. Sarah E. Ross (Puppet Designer and Producer Manager) had warned us that the largest was approximately 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide, but actually seeing a puppet that large come to life in person was both thrilling and intimidating (for comparison: Jim Henson’s Big Bird is 8 feet tall). There remain a handful of questions and concerns about how to best share the stage with the large puppets that won’t be able to be fully solved until we’re in the space. For now, it’s just exciting that they look so amazing and that Matthew Sitz is such a natural at operating them.

Choreographer Darian Tene teaches a dance to Jasondra Johnson (Ronnette), Eunice Woods (Chiffon), and Camille Robinson (Crystal)

Choreographer Darian Tene teaches a dance to Jasondra Johnson (Ronnette), Eunice Woods (Chiffon), and Camille Robinson (Crystal)

One of the greatest surprises and delights in the rehearsal room has been Jonathan Berry’s passion for musical theater, including some pretty great dance moves. He and Choreographer Darian Tene collaborated this week to create some really fun dance numbers that are brimming with personality and sass. My personal favorites have become the Crystal, Ronnette, and Chiffon (played by Camille Robinson, Jasondra Johnson, and Eunice Woods, respectively) songs… mostly because I wish I could perform like they can!

On Sunday we stumbled through the first act and all the components—music, staging, acting, choreography, puppetry—are coming together fantastically.

I also had the opportunity to speak with Jonathan Berry this week, who is one of Blues’ favorite directors. He is returning to us for the second season in a row after directing Side Man at this time last year.

What initially intrigued you about directing Little Shop of Horrors?

It was one of the first musicals that I really fell in love with as a kid. I saw the movie in 1987, and it was an awkward time for me, and here was this story about an awkward guy that I related to and could see myself potentially playing. (At the time I was pretty sure I wanted to be a musical theater actor…) So the ability, now, to revisit that and to find out, now, what I love about it. While still nostalgic for me, I find that, beyond just loving the music and relating to its characters, it remains a remarkably prescient piece about what lengths people will go to when they feel such a palpable sense of desperation. On top of that, the opportunity to work with Michael [Mahler] and Dara [Cameron] again, and to work on something with Austin Cook, whose reputation as a brilliant music director preceded him—I really jumped at the chance.  

This musical is a modern classic that is performed regularly around the world. Is there anything about this production that you envision being specific to the Chicago style of theater in terms of tone or aesthetic?

When Wendy [Whiteside] brought it to me as a possible project, I got very excited, but I said “I’m so absolutely down for this, but only if we can do a really gritty, real production that takes out the camp and the silliness and grounds it in the truth of the situation.” Fortunately, for me, that was what she wanted in the first place. Chicago theater, when it’s at its best, strips away the artifice and trusts the truth and simplicity of the story and the relationships. I’m just trying really hard to keep the focus on that. A group of people, poor and alone and without any real foundation, are given the opportunity to have everything they wished for but never believed they’d achieve. What is the simplest, most direct way to honestly tell that story? That, for me, is the what the best of Chicago theater does and what I hope we’ll achieve in this production.   

What projects will you be working on next?
Well – I’m probably not going to start a new career as a choreographer! I will go immediately into directing Nick Payne’s Constellations for Steppenwolf, and then I am incredibly excited to take the summer off from directing and maybe get to the beach a couple of times this year.  Or refinish that hutch I’ve been meaning to get to for the last two years…

Click here to view part one of INSIDE LITTLE SHOP.


About author

Elyse Dolan

Elyse is American Blues Theater’s Assistant Producer, and a proud Artistic Affiliate. At Blues she has directed several short plays in past Ripped festivals; assisted Kimberly Senior on the reading of Other Than Honorable; and assisted Ed Blatchford on The Rainmaker. Most recently, she directed the world premiere of Here After by Evan Sesek at The New Colony. Other Chicago credits include directing stage readings for Pride Films & Plays, Three Cat Productions, and the Greenhouse Theater Center, and serving as Assistant Director on productions at Raven Theatre, Oracle Theatre, 16th Street Theater, and Redtwist Theatre. Elyse holds a B.A. in Theater and English Literature from Denison University.