A very nice profile of Dennis and Winston, the two guys who play "Audrey II", the plant in WSTA’s Little Shop of Horrors which opens tonight at SECCA:
WINSTON-SALEM — It’s a fairly safe bet that he’s the most popular carnivorous plant in the history of musical theater.
Even though Audrey II, star of "Little Shop of Horrors," might have a life of his own, it takes two people to bring the strange and unusual plant to life in this musical presented by the Theatre Alliance of Winston-Salem.
Dennis Raley is the voice of the plant, while Winston Sims is the plant puppeteer.
"The interesting thing is the connection it requires you to have with your fellow actors," Sims said. "We have to be more in tune with what everyone else is saying or singing and how or if they’re interacting with the plant than if we were on stage beside the other actors."
Based on the super-low-budget 1960 sci-fi movie, the 1982 musical "Little Shop of Horrors" was the highest-grossing production in off-Broadway history when it closed after 2,209 performances, not to mention it snatched a Drama Desk award for Best Musical.
It’s the story of a nebbish named Seymour who works in a shabby flower shop on the wrong side of the tracks. He hides a passion for his co-worker, Audrey, who is in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend.
Everything changes, however, when he finds a plant just after a solar eclipse. The plant, which he names Audrey II, unfortunately thrives on a diet of blood and raw meat, and even more unfortunately, the meals have to be fresh.
Although he becomes an unwitting murderer, Seymour also gains Audrey’s affection and a certain notoriety in horticultural circles. But with Audrey’s appetite increasing along with his size, it remains to be seen how long Seymour will be able to keep up with his demands — or what will happen if they go unanswered.
The musical requires an Audrey II in four different sizes, and Sims is actually inside the plant in its two largest versions.
"It’s a big job," he said. "The biggest puppet, in particular, definitely gives you a workout. It’s not too hot in there right now, but we’re working without the stage lights, and I’ve always had time to come out and cool off. But I don’t have any down time once we’re running the show straight through."
Sims is actually playing Audrey II for the second time, having learned the ropes — or the tendrils, as the case may be — while in high school in Rockingham County. He’s now a senior at UNCG studying theater education.
"When acting with any kind of puppet, you have to learn to move and express yourself as you would as a person," he said. "(Director) Jamie Lawson has given me a lot of freedom to explore options. I try to be fairly consistent in my moves; switching it up too much is confusing to the other actors."
Sims and Raley have had to work together to coordinate their performances.
"I sit in front of him and do the lines and watch him," Raley said. "During rehearsals, I’m behind him, and for the performances, I’ll probably be back stage, so it’s our only time to study our pacing and timing."
The challenge, of course, is that they can’t see each other during a show. Sims is inside one of the plants, while Raley is singing off-stage. It’s the weirdest pas de deux imaginable because if Raley, for example, goes too quickly while Sims is in the largest and most cumbersome puppet, they will end up looking like a film played out of sync with its soundtrack.
Raley doesn’t mind the extra work because he has dreamed of this role since he saw the off-Broadway production more than 20 years ago.
"His job is harder than mine," he said. "I just have to concentrate on exactly what’s coming out of my mouth. It’s almost cartoonish — close, but not completely over the top."
Despite his name, the voice of Audrey II is supposed to be deep and booming, befitting the flavor of the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman songs, which are based on the "doo-wop" and rock ‘n’ roll hits of early Motown.
Raley lived in New York City for two decades performing in operas and concerts and theater, so he has that covered. Although he moved to the Piedmont in 2001, this is his first role in the area.
"We were both cast as Audrey II well before the plants arrived, so we had to wait to work on our roles," he says. "I’ve seen pictures of the plant from different productions, and some are mean-looking and some are friendly. That look decides how you approach the role. Our plants look friendly, and I’m happy about that because it’s better if it seems to be a game, if he’s not outwardly sinister."
After all, where’s the fun if your bloodthirsty and maniacal plant actually looks sinister?
Leslie Mizell has been covering the Triad’s theater scene for more than a decade. Her column runs weekly in Go Triad. Contact her at LAMizell@aol.com.
Frankly, I don’t know how Winston does it. After the "curtain" is down, he come out of that plant emaciated and twisted like a pretzel. But in the plant? The two of them are phenomenal.
Y’all got your tickets right?
October 19-21 & 25-28, 2007
Performed at SECCA, 750 Marguerite Street, Winston Salem
All shows at 8 pm, except Sundays at 2 pm.
FOR INFORMATION CALL 336.768.5655