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The glorious diva of evil

'Little Shop of Horrors' goes on the road with a newly built star. Don't call her late to dinner.

August 25, 2004|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

She's a stage diva with one bad attitude. Six feet tall, 7 feet long, with a fanged maw, an appetite for human flesh and the ability to rise about 20 feet into the air: Meet Audrey II, the basso-voiced, orchid-inspired femme fatale from "Little Shop of Horrors."

There are actually four Audrey II's in the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical tribute to Roger Corman's 1960 cult horror flick. The mean, green, jive-talking seed from outer space grows from an arm-sized potted plant to a glowing million-dollar-plus behemoth weighing in at more than 3 tons. After chowing down on the cast, it turns on the audience for dessert.

The puppets were redesigned for the just-closed Broadway revival; the largest was redesigned again for the national tour, which opens Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Martin P. Robinson, a veteran puppet designer and puppeteer whose foam and fabric alter egos include "Sesame Street's" smallest and biggest characters (Slimey Worm and Mr. Snuffalupagus), created the Audrey puppets with the Jim Henson Co.

Before the show took root as a tiny off-off-Broadway novelty in 1982, Robinson's greatest challenge "was to figure out what the heck Audrey II was."

"Based on Howard's script," he says, "it needed to sing, dance, talk jive, eat the entire cast, take over the stage, take over the world. That was the mandate."

After the show took off, Robinson developed considerable affection for his creation. "I don't personify my puppets to some strange, disturbing, sick point, like some puppeteers I could name," he protests, laughing. "But at her heart, she's a great puppet and a great tool, and she's changed my life.

"My hand knows every curve of her pod -- I know, it sounds a little like I might be straying into that sick area -- but the original model that I made was only 11 inches, something I could hold, turn, look at every angle. Now this thing that I held in my hand is something that I'm climbing inside of."

The first two hand-puppet versions, Robinson says, are "puppy-like, very sweet and needy. The third is a Porsche, the fourth is a tank."

In the Broadway show, the biggest Audrey II worked with an elaborate counterweight system and tracks built into the stage; Robinson was inside it. That system was impractical for the tour, so it was reconceived as an elaborate hydraulic automation by Scenic Technologies.

Now, Audrey II's head, mouth and lips are controlled by a puppeteer backstage, using monitors, a joy stick, toggle switches and a foot pedal. Another person moves the entire puppet via a boom. Only the plant's claw-like root is manipulated by a puppeteer inside.

"When we eat the cast one by one," Robinson says, "you have to keep enough space inside the pod to get them to go down."

The highly articulated, midsized Audrey II is the favorite with all the puppeteers, according to Michael Latini, who alternates inside it with Paul McGinnis during the tour, their legs covered with vines and their arms moving the mouth "like a giant clamshell." They curl and pucker the lips using poles, trying to match the puppet's movements as closely as possible to Michael James Leslie's offstage performance as the female Audrey II's raucous male voice.

"Every time I do it, I'm sweating like a pig, but I love it. You can hear the audience respond. They're amazed."

The biggest challenge is the automated Audrey No. 4, Latini says. "It's the finale of the show. With most puppets, you have to be soft and gentle to get subtlety out of them; it's very hard to make that plant move fluidly and snake-like and not seem like a robot."


'Little Shop of Horrors'

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Opens 4 p.m. Sunday. Runs 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Exceptions: 2 p.m. only Oct. 3, 10, 17; 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 30, Oct. 7, 14.

Ends: Oct. 17

Price: $25 to $80

Contact: (213) 628-2772

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