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Man-Eating Plant Rocks KC Rep's 'Little Shop of Horrors'

When first introduced in 1960, Little Shop of Horrors was a cheesy, low-budget movie about a meek floral shop apprentice who accidentally cultivates a man-eating plant.

Since it was turned into a musical in 1982, it's played both Broadway and, of late,  high school auditoriums everywhere. So when some wondered why Kansas City Repertory Theatre put it on its schedule, the answer was found in the resourceful crew who work behind the scenes. 

If Roger Corman's twisted horror farce  hadn't been turned into a popular musical in the early eighties, it would be remembered for little more than a cameo by a young Jack Nicholson. But Oscar-winning composers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman saw something ripe and universal in the story of Seymour, the nerdy flower shop assistant who comes out of his shell thanks to a plant that feeds on human flesh and blood. Directing Kansas City Rep's production is Kyle Hatley, who acknowledges there was some grumbling about the choice that was drowned out by his own enthusiasm for the show.

Doing the Story Justice

"Why Little Shop of Horrors at the Rep? It's an underdog story, which is appealing to me, and it's one of my favorite musicals ever," Hatley says. "I think we offer our audiences a pretty eclectic palate of conversational pieces (and) pieces of entertainment, but also great stories worth telling. I think that's what we're best at: how to tell a story.

"But at the same time, our responsibility in presenting these stories that we choose to tell, we also have a responsibility to have fun and let our audience have fun and,  frankly, rock out."

Hatley wasn't content to leave the show to high school productions, which may have fun with it but with only limited resources to really do it justice.  

"Most regional theaters don't tell the story because it's one of the most technically challenging stories to tell on stage," says Hatley. "(It's) not just because you have to make a man-eating plant come to life and literally eat people in front of you, but also because the way it transitions from one moment to the next is chaotic, And you only have eight characters to tell the story.  So there's a muscularity about it that's very attractive to us and we love to tell big stories with little things. And I'm personally attracted to it because of that terrible B-Movie vibe."

Sculpting a Career Path 

At a recent tech rehearsal at The Rep's Copaken Stage downtown, I meet props artisan Grace Hudson, who was assigned the task of designing the plant - rather, four versions of it, because as it feeds, it grows beyond human proportion. Hudson, who adds the credit "puppet designer" to her resume with this show, has been with The Rep for five years and recalls how she only inadvertently fell into theater.

"I went to school for sculpture and I didn't have a background in theater until I started working in St. Louis at Stages as a painter," Hudson says. "I really enjoyed painting but I wanted to do more materials, more stuff, so I got into props and I've been at it ever since."

"I imagine a lot of artists do that," I said. "They figure, okay, I'm good, I'm talented but it may not pay all the bills. (So) let me look at using my skills in other ways."

"Exactly. That's exactly what happened to me," she replies, "because I was, like, I really want to be an artist but I'm too scared to go off on my own. So I got a job where I could paint."

In the Mouth of the Beast

Hudson introduces me the third version of the plant, about as big as a golf cart. It's named Audrey Too, after Seymour's crush (also named Audrey) and sitting stage center of the floral shop set.  Because the actor who operates it by being seat-belted inside, Nick Uthoff, is on dinner break, the plant's bulbous mouth and viney tentacles are slack. Hudson is asked permission to open the plant's jaws, which are velcroed shut.

"It's pretty sticky in there," Hudson warns.  "So the inside has a viewing area, which is scrim, so the audience can't see Nick, but he can see out and see the actors, and react to them, and then this texture is called crystal gel, which is kind of saliva-like. There's all these goopy strings and big foam teeth.  And there's a slit so body parts can slip into there, so that's pretty creepy."

The Motown Sound

Director Kyle Hatley says he's loving the show's mix of Motown-inspired music and B-movie kitsch.

"This is one of the most refreshing things I've ever directed because it's allowed me to play,  in the way that I like to play with material," he says. "But it's also allowed me to let the material do what it wants to do.

"So in a way there's a hybrid of selling the music and the goofy, fun story, the wacky horror story that this is while taking a few artistic liberties here and there to stab it a little harder, to bring home the bloodshed a little more, and to bring home the music in a rock and roll way."

Though cut of completely different cloth, Hatley's next directing job is a bit similar. At The Living Room this summer, he's staging Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare's goriest play. 

The Kansas City Rep's production of Little Shop of Horrorsruns at the Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut, through May 20.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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