Dancers lift their arms in unison and twirl as a unit. Actors march across the room, lips moving as they run lines. Crew members place props and give a nod to actors. The energy is high and uplifting. The cast is rehearsing for Little Shop of Horrors. Dave Landis, the director, beams with anticipation. “I’m integrating the three urchins into the story. In this production, they’re more than singers and dancers; they’re ambassadors for the plant, Audrey II. They manipulate Seymour.” He rubs his hands together and raises his eyebrows. “All right everybody! Places!”
The musical comedy begins in a floral shop on Skid Row. Seymour and Audrey work for Mr. Mushkin, the owner, who is anxious and ornery because business is slow. Seymour finds himself with a unique plant, dubbed Audrey II, though he soon discovers that it feeds on human flesh and blood. The plant brings popular attention to the shop and to Seymour. Audrey, who has a crush on Seymour, dreams of a day when her life will move away from Skid Row and to someplace green in the suburbs with Seymour.
The cast moves through the scenes, pouring longing and hope into each dance step and line; longing for an audience and hope that, this time, the show won’t be shut down due to COVID concerns. The show was initially scheduled to run in the Spring of 2020 but was rainchecked when the pandemic shut the city down. The run was rescheduled for fall of 2020, but the Delta variant’s impact on the city shut rehearsals down once again. This third go around, the cast looks forward to a full performance and a delighted audience. It is the first musical to be staged at Playhouse on the Square post-pandemic.
Michael Gravois, who plays Mr. Mushkin, has a simple dream. He dreams of the day when hugs can once again be spontaneous and warm. “I’m a hug vampire,” he says. “I gain power through hugs. But the pandemic has made me skittish about hugging people and I hate that. I hate not knowing if it’s alright to hug someone I love and haven’t seen for months. Like Audrey II, (the flesh-eating plant) with her thirst for blood, I thirst for the green place where hugs are automatically allowed.”
The role of Seymour is played by Daniel Stuart Nelson. Daniel came to the Memphis area in 2015, moving from Kansas to take care of his mother (she has since recovered from her illness and is currently doing well). After performing in Playhouse’s production of “American Idiot,” Daniel took a job in the Playhouse box office and then moved into the marketing department. Later, after being cast in numerous roles on the Playhouse stage, Daniel became a company member. Playing Seymour is Daniel’s first mainstage lead. “I’ve waited six years to get a leading role,” he grins. “This opportunity has been postponed twice and I’m finally moving into the green place of my dreams.”
Brooke Papritz is cast as Audrey. She came to Playhouse in 2015, straight out of West Michigan University in Kalamazoo. She’s played in thirty shows at Playhouse. When asked about the domestic violence in the Little Shop story, Brooke responds, “It’s a different time now than it was in the 1980s when this play was first produced. Back then, violence against women was sure to get a laugh from the audience. But not anymore, and I’m sensitive to that change. I’m trying to bring honesty to the role of Audrey; honesty as well as joy.” Brooke fell in love with and married Nathan McHenry, when they were both Playhouse interns. Brooke and Nathan, who plays the abusive boyfriend in the play, have bought a house, own a dog, and made Memphis their green place.
Samantha Miller, who is the voice for Audrey II, says the long, down days of the pandemic gave her time to think, to reflect, and to reassess her life. Life had been busy, and the pandemic afforded her a chance to slow down. Her green place is in the recording industry and in the dream of a record deal.
Noelia Warnett-Jones, plays one of the Skid Row urchins. Noelia is a teacher, and the pandemic shut down her excitement about directing a performance of “Shrek, the Musical.” She might have been down for the duration, but she chose instead to fall in love with the quiet afforded her by the shut down. She got to know herself better and allowed her students to see her human side. “I met them where they were.” The green place for Noelia is the deeper connection and hope she has with her students.
Breyannah Tillman also plays an urchin. Breyannah initially thought she would leave Memphis and move to DC with family, but that didn’t happen. She says, “I’m finishing the season here at Playhouse and allowing good things and green places to come to me.”
Zan Edwards is the third urchin. Zan reports having multiple personal issues during the pandemic, so much that she couldn’t focus on the future. There came a point when panic hit her. Then she started saving money, meditating, and finding inner peace. Her green place is Atlanta, where she hopes to move with her career.
Audrey sings the song, longing for a green place in her future; all the cast long for a successful run of their performances, complete with happy audiences. The show opened on November 12 and runs through December 22, 2021.
Somewhere That’s Green
I know Seymour’s the greatest
But I’m dating a semi-sadist
So I’ve got a black eye
And my arm’s in a cast.
Still, that Seymour’s a cutie
Well, if not, he’s got inner beauty
And I dream of a place
Where we could be together at last
A matchbox of our own
A fence of real chain link,
A grill out on the patio
Disposal in the sink
A washer and a dryer and an ironing machine
In a tract house that we share
Somewhere that’s green.
He rakes and trims the grass
He loves to mow and weed
I cook like Betty Crocker
And I look like Donna Reed
There’s plastic on the furniture
To keep it neat and clean
In the Pine-Sol scented air
Somewhere that’s green
Between our frozen dinner
And our bedtime, nine-fifteen
We snuggle watchin’ Lucy
On our big, enormous twelve-inch screen
I’m his December Bride
He’s Father, he Knows Best
Our kids play Howdy Doody
As the sun sets in the west
A picture out of Better Homes and Gardens magazine
Far from Skid Row
I dream we’ll go
Somewhere that’s green.Songwriters: Alan Menken / Howard Elliott Ashman
Somewhere That’s Green lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group
This article is part of the Behind the Arts Writers Workshop, made possible by an Arts Build Communities grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission and administered by ArtsMemphis.
Elaine Blanchard is a writer, social activist, and ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ denomination. She moved to Memphis in 1994. She and her wife, Anna, are proud Midtown Memphians.