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‘Little Shop of Horrors’ pays Atlanta a visit

Drama geeks and horror junkies know that “Little Shop of Horrors” is a musical true to its name. Released in 1982, it premiered in the surprisingly small Workshop of the Players’ Art Theatre of no more than 100 seats. This gave the first audience an intimate relationship with the gruesome story, likely disturbing some of the more squeamish members.

The Urchins, played by Courtney Loner, Bethany Rowe and Jennifer Morse, start off the show with a musical number. Photo by Ruth Pannill | The Signal
The Urchins, played by Courtney Loner, Bethany Rowe and Jennifer Morse, start off the show with a musical number.
Photo by Ruth Pannill | The Signal

Onstage Atlanta is a local theater company with 43 years of history in Atlanta. Its main theater is similar to the space in which “Little Shop of Horrors” first premiered. As Managing Director Barry West explains, the initial concept of the space allowed for mutability, but the design changed over time.

“In this particular case, it’s original concept was, ‘This is going to be our studio space,’” West said. “And therefore, we built it so it could eventually be moved around and the stage could be in different areas. A couple of hindrances to this were that we were going to build our main stage out in the warehouse part, but we weren’t able to get that space.”

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When “Little Shop of Horrors” opens at Onstage Atlanta, Scott Rousseau will portray Mr. Mushnik, the miserly flower shop owner.

“This is my first time performing in the show,” Rousseau said. “But I’ve directed this show three times before and I’ve taken on the task of renovating the plant that we have.”

tradeIn theatre as well as in film, directors and actors have hugely different jobs and distinct responsibilities. Rousseau is glad to return to the stage and describes his mindset as a director and actor.

“Directing and acting are two different animals,” Rousseau said. “So they don’t, for me, intertwine. When I have directed this show, I don’t think I said, ‘Here’s how I’d do the role.’ As an actor, it’s a totally different experience. I’m not looking at the director’s side of it; I’m only looking at my character and my character arc.”

In addition to managing director, West could claim the titles of set designer, producer, technician and countless more — he was in the midst of painting before his conversation with The Signal. West reveals his passion for all aspects of theater.

Wake Forest University

“I like taking on more [responsibilities],” he said. “ Also, right now I am retired, so I have more time and I can do things like this. But I also like to make sure that everything gets done. With other people having jobs, I can come in and paint or I can build something. I make sure to work on that during the day so that when people come to rehearse at night, they don’t have to worry about things like that.”

Rousseau is also active in more ways the one. He explains his involvement in acquiring and managing a plant to use as a prop.

“What we confer about is mainly the plant and how it works,” Rousseau said. “It’s a standard piece of propage for the show, whereas everything else, the set, the costumes, the wigs, that all comes from [West]. I auditioned for the show to be in it, not to hinder his job.”

“We’ve also known each other for some 40 odd years,” West added. “So I don’t want to say symbiotic, but I can give him a look and he knows exactly what I’m thinking.”

Rousseau confirmed this strong mutual understanding. He explains the advantage of working with someone you know well as opposed to working with a relative stranger.

“We work together really well,” Rousseau said. “We know each other’s temperaments and things, so it works well. We’ve stepped on each other’s toes quite a few times, but the thing is, we can go back after and say, ‘you know you stepped on my toes there.’”

Both West and Rousseau are quite fond of “Little Shop of Horrors.” The musical’s story features ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

“Little Shop is one of those wonderful shows where you take this group of people in a very low-class setting and put them into a highly emotional state,” Rousseau said. “The writes have a blast with the show — there’s a lot of inside theatre jokes in it for anybody who knows New York or knows theatre, but it’s also the famous Menken, Alan Menken, who went on to Disney fame and did a lot of music for Disney.”

Alan Menken composed the music for “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” among other Disney films.

on screenMost people have heard of “Little Shop of Horrors” but few know that the musical found inspiration in a B horror film from 1960.

“It’s based on a movie that came out in the ‘60s by Roger Corman who was a horror producer,” Rousseau explained.

“He originally produced ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’. It was a low-budget horror movie that actually featured Jack Nicholson — there’s a dentist in the show, Orin and Nicholson was a customer of Orin’s in the dentist shop, who really liked being worked on.”

He went on to describe the film in further detail and shared his take on the B film. To Rousseau, it made sense to create a musical adaptation of the film, despite its peculiarities.

“It took seven days to film,” continued Rousseau. “And it’s a very creepy little film about a man-eating plant from another planet. It’s very weird, but it’s very good. I can see why they would adapt it and it adapted beautifully to this musical.”

A subsequent film, based on the musical, was released in 1986. It features Bill Murray, Jim Belushi and Steve Martin.
West explains the selection process that Onstage Atlanta uses to choose plays each season. He explains the hierarchy of authority involved in selecting plays for the theatre to adapt.

“The artistic company replaces throughout the year,” West said. “They make suggestions to the company manager. So they decide among themselves which shows they want to do and then all of that is presented to the board of directors, which makes the ultimate decision. It’s a collaborative effort.”

The director sees each season of the theatre as a sort of play in and of itself. He suggests the possibility of combining popular and unpopular shows to create a season of repeated and novel experiences.

“Musicals cost more to put on,” West said. “But they also have a big return. You have to look at your season as a whole picture, knowing that somewhere in that season, you could put a show that’s not going to be as successful as your other shows. But you want to broaden the horizons of your audience.”

Anyone seeking a broader horizon, as well as good music and a nice old-fashioned scare, should head out to Decatur, where Onstage Atlanta resides. Students can reserve a ticket for $17 or $20 at the door. Shows take place on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. “Little Shop of Horrors” will be performed until March 28.


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