URI’s ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is a musical comedy with a big bite

Popular musical opens April 18 in Fine Arts Center

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 11, 2024 – It’s scary when fiction syncs up so snuggly with real life. But with the recent solar eclipse, we are fittingly ready for an alien invasion from a highly invasive, man-eating plant.

Audrey II — the ravenous, giant plant at the hungry heart of “Little Shop of Horrors” — is headed for the University of Rhode Island. The popular musical opens an eight-show run on Thursday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. in URI’s J Studio at the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, Kingston.

A combination sci-fi B film, dark comedy, and Greek tragedy, “Little Shop of Horrors” is an award-winning musical with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken that debuted off-Broadway in 1982. The musical, which has an iconic repertoire of rock, doo-wop and Motown-influenced songs, was turned into a cult classic film, starring Steve Martin, Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene, in 1986.

The play follows Seymour, a meek, young clerk in a struggling flower shop on Skid Row who is secretly in love with his co-worker Audrey. After a sudden solar eclipse, Seymour finds a strange plant, which has a taste for blood and human flesh. As it feeds and grows, the plant brings Seymour fame and love. But he must keep coming up with bodies to please the bloodthirsty plant.  

“Little Shop of Horrors” opens at the Fine Arts Center’s J Studio on April 18. (Poster by Courtney Satterley ’24)

“It’s such a fun and weird show. The songs on their own are so popular,” says Paula McGlasson, who returned last fall as chair of the URI theatre department on an interim basis. “We tried to get the rights to it two years ago but we couldn’t because it was touring in New England. So when it became available, I thought it would be great for this year.”

McGlasson, who has directed URI’s annual musical nearly every year since 1998—but never “Little Shop of Horrors”—will direct the play with associate director Jimmy Calitri, a former URI theatre student who now teaches at Providence College, and student director Matt Perrotta, a senior theatre major from Cranston. 

Liam Roberts, who plays dentist Orin Scrivello, sings, backed by urchins Princess Johnson and Ayrin Ramirez Peguero.

McGlasson is directing her first musical at URI since 2019 and is excited to reunite with her production team of musical director Lila Kane and choreographer Dante Sciarra, along with Calitri. “The four of us are friends in our personal lives as well as professional lives,” she said. “So it’s been great getting back together with them.”

While “Little Shop of Horrors” is nearly 50 years old, it has a big following among current students familiar with the 1986 film, Perrotta says.  

“It’s an essential show to young musical theater students. It’s canon,” he says. “Last year, when we were choosing this year’s musical, ‘Little Shop’ got a lot of support from students.”

Calitri, who was in the musical as a student, says a lot of that popularity is due to the music and lyrics by Ashman and Menken, who also teamed up for such Disney classics as “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin.” 

“When you’re in school and learning about ‘Little Shop,’ you think of these iconic songs when you’re doing cabarets or juries,” he says. “Everybody knows the song ‘Suddenly Seymour’ and the ‘Dentist’ song.”

This production’s Seymour – senior Josh Winderman – agrees. “It really has some great songs that are very catchy and will make the audience want to dance,” he says. “I think it has some of the best songs out there in musical theater. This is such a fun and goofy show. If you’re in the mood for something dark but also strangely lighthearted, this is the show to come see.”

Sophomore Joey Fortune plays the “ditzy blonde” Audrey, who starts out tolerating the abuse of her boyfriend, Orin. Fortune likes the transition Audrey undergoes and the theme of empowerment she sees in her and other characters.

“I like how she goes from being really insecure and not viewing herself as having a lot of worth,” says Fortune. “Over the course of the musical, she realizes she doesn’t have to accept that life is this way and takes steps to change it for the better.”

For stage manager Sam Cote, a senior theatre major, URI’s production is his third time doing “Little Shop,” including playing Orin and serving as a puppeteer for productions at summer camp. It is one of his favorite musicals.

“I find it really funny. There’s a lot about the show,” says Cote, who will oversee eight assistant stage managers as he keeps the play running smoothly when it debuts. “It’s a somber show; everyone dies at the end. But what takes over? It’s a plant from outer space. It’s the craziest idea.” 

But URI is putting its own stamp on the musical, making unique choices in casting, stage design and how it immerses the audience in the story, McGlasson says.

To bring the world of the flower shop and Skid Row to life, URI has put together a production that will circle the audience in the 1960s trappings. The scenic design by James Horban, a URI professor of lighting and design, uses nearly every inch of J Studio – from the scaffolding to the spiral staircase and the aisles, to the walls behind the audience. The audience will be greeted by numerous billboards that reflect the era – such as a housewife embracing a Hoover vacuum cleaner and another that urges women to worship their husbands. 

Also, URI’s production adds actors to the ensemble and urchin casts, a diverse group of students who will help set the 1960s vibe. While the urchins serve as a Greek chorus commenting on the action, the ensemble actors have been given expanded backstories – such as “Hippie chick” – and will interact with the audience even before the performance starts.

“What has excited me about our production,” says Calitri, “is that every time I’ve worked on the musical or seen it, it’s been very proscenium-based. This is the first time I’ve seen it done in such an immersive way.”

“Whether you’ve seen ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ before or not, this is our take on it,” adds McGlasson. “I haven’t seen it done this way by any other group. It may succeed, it may fail, but it is ours.”

But no “Little Shop” production is complete without Audrey II. URI has brought in four puppets to play the peckish plant as it grows, topping out at more than 6 feet. Three puppeteers take turns at the strenuous job of being the plant. The actor who plays Audrey II, Isaiah Agabi, will provide the voice and singing offstage while watching a monitor.

“Our job as a puppeteer is to bring something made of fiberglass to life and convince the audience it is a living being,” says Brandon Tallardy, a sophomore theatre and film major, who operates Audrey II at the plant’s largest. “Working on this show has been a truly unique experience. It turns out lip syncing an 85-pound puppet to music isn’t all that easy.”

Adds Agabi, a freshman theatre and civil engineering major: “The puppeteers and I have had to become one. There have been times when I am singing that I use my body to express myself despite the fact no one can see me. The puppeteers have taken some of my moves and translated them into how they move the puppet. I am beyond excited to open and entertain everyone who gets to see our wild show.”

“Little Shop of Horrors” runs April 18-20 and 25-27 at 7:30 p.m. and on April 21 and 28 at 2 p.m. in J Studio at the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, Kingston Campus. Tickets are $20 for the general public and $18 for senior citizens and URI students, faculty and staff. Tickets can be purchased online, by calling (401) 874-5843 or at the box office in Room 101H in the Fine Arts Center.

“Little Shop of Horrors” cast

Character / actor / hometown
Seymour / Josh Winderman / Island Park, New York
Audrey / Joey Fortune / Wakefield
Mr. Mushnik / David Weber II / Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
Orin Scrivello D.D.S. / Liam Roberts / Warwick
Audrey II / Isaiah Agabi / Warwick
Urchin / Princess Johnson / Warwick
Urchin / Jolina Phin / Warwick
Urchin / Ayrin Ramirez Peguero / Providence
Urchin / David Santana / Providence
Urchin / Abraphine Ngafaih / Providence
Puppeteer / EJ Caraveo / Tiverton
Puppeteer / Ethan Clarke / Seekonk, Massachusetts
Puppeteer / Brandon Tallardy / Westerly
Ensemble / Skyler Bobinski / Simsbury, Connecticut
Ensemble / Jenna Goulart / Bristol
Ensemble / Ella Kenny / Pasadena, California
Ensemble / Christian Owen / Eastport, New York
Ensemble / Cole Stanley / Providence
Ensemble / Tatiana Sullivan / Hope Valley