‘Little Shop of Horrors’ opens Playhouse’s 2023-24 season
Robert Dennick Joki spends most of his time staging plays and musicals he wrote with the theater he founded, Rust Belt Theater Company.
But directing “Little Shop of Horrors” always has been on his bucket list, and he can check it off on Friday, when the musical opens at Youngstown Playhouse for a two-weekend run.
“I love dark musicals, I love dark comedies,” Joki said. “The first musical I ever directed was “Batboy the Musical” at the Oakland (Center for the Arts) and then “Reefer Madness.” Those things inspired me to produce ‘Living Dead (the Musical).’ It’s just fun to do something creepy, and it’s also hilarious.”
“Little Shop” is an early collaboration by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who later composed Oscar-winning songs for such Disney hits as “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Based on a 1960 low-budget horror film of the same name, “LSOH” is the story of a nebbish employee of a struggling flower shop in a rundown part of town who discovers a plant that changes the fortunes of the shop and turns the employee, Seymour Krelborn, into a minor celebrity.
There’s only one problem — the plant has a taste for blood, and it expects Seymour to continue to provide the sustenance it craves.
The music played for five years Off-Broadway starting in 1982, but it didn’t make its Broadway debut until 2003. However, “Little Shop” had something most musicals of its era didn’t — a film version released in 1984 starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin and the voice of Levi Stubbs (of The Four Tops) as the plant, Audrey II.
The movie was a flop at the box office, but it’s beloved by many, and the musical remains popular with community and college theaters.
“When I was growing up, it was one of the only musicals that made it to the big screen,” Joki said. “It’s something that inspired me to go into theater.”
The movie version made several changes in the original work, not limited to giving the story a happier ending.
“There’s a lot of music in the stage production that’s not in the movie,” Joki said. “You can hear little bits of ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Hercules,’ which are fun to pick out, these little music motifs. One thing that cracks me up is there’s one bit that sounds very much like ‘Defying Gravity’ (from ‘Wicked’), another musical that centers around a green character.”
The cast features Kage Coven, Carolyn Colley, Nathan Beagle, Frank Carsone, Connor Bezeredi, Heather Powell, Wayne Bonner III, Sarah Whitlatch, Ben Gavitt, Josh Yohman, Holly Anne, John Weber, Briana Wagner Matijieric, Eric McCrea and Tyler Moliterno.
At Rust Belt Theater Company’s former home at the Calvin Center and its current space at Club Switch in Youngstown, Joki got used to making nontraditional spaces work for some big-cast musicals and wearing many, many hats in order to produce those shows on wafer-thin budgets.
Joki directed the first production when the Playhouse opened its Moyer Room performance space, but this will be the first time he’s directed on the main stage, where he has a large performance space and a fly system to work with as well as the staff at the Playhouse.
“The biggest difference from the Calvin Center or Club Switch is the number of people I have that I can delegate to,” he said. “I have a stage manager. Someone else is doing lights, doing choreography and building the set. I’m directing, doing costumes and constructing the large puppet.”
The production team includes Caitlyn N. Santiago as stage manager, Tyler Stouffer as music director, Johnny Pecano as scenic director and Emelia Sherin as choreographer and intimacy coordinator.
While it was a challenge at first learning to delegate, Joki said he now wants to find a way to have a stage manager for future Rust Belt shows.
Not doing it all gave Joki the opportunity to devote more time to blocking, creating little moments and call backs to earlier scenes that he just doesn’t have time for when juggling multiple tasks.
When he’s directed well-known shows, Joki doesn’t try to recreate what audience members expect from the film version or other stagings, and “LSOH” is no exception.
Instead of the late ’50s / early ’60s look of the costumes in the movie, Joki drew inspiration from the ’80s. He also didn’t want his Audrey II man-eating plant to look like the one from the movie.
“It’s a little more twisted, a little more Youngstown,” Joki said. “It’s more of an insectile creature. I can’t wait to see how audiences react to it … I want people to get what they want out of this, but I want to challenge them a little bit.”