Monstrous man-eating plant stars in Music Theatre West show

Special effects designer Tyler Whitesides demonstrates one of the smaller versions of his man-eating plant puppets that will star in the upcoming Music Theatre West production of "Little Shop of Horrors."

LOGAN – Until recently, rehearsals for the upcoming Music Theatre West production of the off-beat musical “Little Shop of Horrors” have been proceeding without one important character – the alien talking and singing plant, Audrey Two.

That’s because the infamous plant – which incidentally also eats people right onstage – has been busy growing under the skilled hands of MTW special effects designer Tyler Whitesides.

With the show’s debut at the Ellen Ecles Theatre set for Friday, the human cast members of “Little Shop of Horrors” have finally been united with the carnivorous plant. How long those brave thespians will last until Audrey Two gets hungry is anybody’s guess.

“Obviously,” Whitesides says, “one of the most challenging things about doing ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is how do you make a giant, operable puppet that can eat people whole?

“I’ve seen photos of productions where the director just dresses an actor up as the plant … That would be kind of a let down for the audience, I think,” he explains. “When people come to this show, they want to see a giant man-eating plant. So I wanted to make our Audrey Two as big as I could to ensure that it would be a real presence on the stage.”

The term “stage presence” is an understatement for what Whitesides has created. His final version of Audrey Two stands nearly 11-feet tall when fully upright. The evil plant is massive enough to engulf a cast member in its jaws and requires two backstage puppeteers to operate it.

The giant plant’s appearance and mechanism had to be designed from scratch, according to Whitesides, because theater companies that have previously performed “Little Shop of Horrors” tend to be protective of their design secrets.

“That’s one of the crazy things about this show …” he adds. “There’s just not a lot of information online about how to build these puppets.”

Another headache for Whitesides was the fact that Audrey Two doesn’t appear initially as a full-grown, man-eating plant.

“The plant grows throughout the show,” Whitesides says, “ so we needed four puppets of varying sizes. We started with a little one in a pot. Then there’s a second one that’s about twice the size of a football.

“This is what we call Pod 3,” he explains, demonstrating how a crew member actually has to squeeze inside the man-sized mechanism. “It’s kind of a beast for the puppeteer to get into. Then he sits on a pot, with his torso and legs disguised as vines.”

Another tricky aspect of the challenging design project, according to Whitesides, was making the puppets huge while being light enough to be fully functional. While the puppets look organic, they are actually made of a framework of PVC piping, layers of fabric and dozens of coats of paint.

Productions of “Little Shop of Horrors” are often reviewed as critically for the design and execution of the plant puppets as they are for vocal and acting performances.

One otherwise stellar review of a 2019 Broadway revival of the show commented sourly that the design of the plant puppets provided “no surprises.” Another critique applauded a California-based production that cast a female vocalist as the voice of a siren-like Audrey Two and said that the design of its plant puppets was “innovatively sexy.”

“Our Audrey Two will definitely not be sexy,” Whitesides laughs. “We’re going more for an intimidating vibe, like ‘Feed me! Or I’ll eat you!’.”

From backstage, the funky voice of Audrey Two will be provided by Clifton Richards.

Other cast members of “Little Shop of Horrors” are Cameron Neely as the down-on-his-luck florist Seymore who pines for the lovely but somewhat masochistic Audrey (One), played by Melinda Richards. Seymore’s rival for Audrey’s affection is Logan McKenna as the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello. Brad Noble rounds out the leading roles as the manipulative shop owner Mr. Mushnik.

The musical’s trendy choral tunes will be performed by Lauren Sidwell, Ashley Hodges and Tiffany Snell as Ronnette, Crystal and Chiffon respectively.

The show’s artistic team is led by Debbie Ditton, the director of the MTW productions of “Forever Plaid” and “The Taffetas” in fall of 2020. As always, the incomparable Jay Richards will supervise the show’s orchestration.

Production designer Danny Rash (on loan from the Four Seasons Theatre Company) is expected to create another of his impressive stage settings.

With all the usual COVID-19 precautions being observed at the Ellen Eccles Theatre, performances of “Little Shop Of Horrors” will run from Mar. 5 to 13.

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