One of my favorite shows in the whole musical canon is Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Little Shop of Horrors. I love it so much that it was the first thing I directed in high school. It also was something I quoted for every college application I wrote. Also, I just purchased this last night:
My friend, Jesse (who served as puppeteer for Audrey II in our high school production), sent me a link to a video on Instagram showing Vicky Vox performing as Audrey II, dressed fabulously and dominating the stage in a way only a drag queen or a blood-guzzling plant ever could. I was shocked. We saw her expressions; she interacted with the other cast members. She made demands in the middle of a lyric, "Hold this," as she tossed the puppet to someone else. She had attitude that could've come through only about 10% if she had been only the voice. She fully embodied that plant.
At first, my mind rebelled at it. A human playing the plant? But but but... What about puppets? Once that initial reaction faded after about 10 seconds, I started to enjoy myself. I wasn't exactly sure why it worked so well for me. This was the first time I had ever seen the plant portrayed by a human with a face as opposed to a puppet. Of course, when I was casting the production of Little Shop in high school, my friend Joe gave such a riotous performance with his facial expressions, I thought, "It's too bad no one would see this."
It strikes me as so obvious to use an actor to enhance a performance. Director Maria Aberg’s production does use puppetry, but even that is totally jarring in a fun and theatrical way. From what I've seen, the show is soaked in a theatrical nature that is both simple and extravagant. The art design alone makes me overjoyed. The electric, lime green that invades the entire production, clearly showing us everything that Audrey II's tentacles have corrupted, down to the band-aids on Seymour's fingers. It's artistic and it's totally something that would be more at home in an animated show rather than what we may see on stage these days. Color is symbolic. Use it to show a character's change, use it to show family groups, use it to show something that can't normally be detected.
The production has so many instances of "it's so obvious, why hasn't it been done before?" I believe we get stuck as theatre artists in trying to make things complicated or extravagant for the sake of showing the audience where their money has gone. Sometimes surprise, ingenuity, and simplicity are more than enough. Yes, delivering a massive Audrey II puppet is a glorious spectacle, but think of the simpler, "theatrical" ways it can be done. This production, (which I would love to see in person), has served as yet another reminder to not take things so literally. Don't read a script and think you have to deliver the actual, literal thing the script calls for. Whether the script calls for a giant plant, or a singing bus. Use your imagination, damnit! Being forced to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks is part of what makes the theatrical experience especially unique for an audience. TV, Netflix, or movies don't have that. They show us exactly what we're meant to see and our brains don't have to do any work. (Unless the writing is good...) But showing us an image on stage, crafted with unexpected materials, using them in inventive ways creates shock and awe in a good way.
I'll keep trying to be theatrical, and I'll try not to miss the obvious.