People-eating plant puppet takes shape in Saxtons River

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SAXTONS RIVER — What do you do when you need a people-eating plant and your local nursery is all out? You get creative and grow your own.

That's what has been going on at Main Street Arts in Saxtons River as the cast and crew prepare for a production of "Little Shop of Horrors," set to open Thursday, June 29 for a weekend run.

The popular musical by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman features three stages of a carnivorous plant named Audrey II that grows increasingly ravenous as it consumes bigger and bigger prey. Its greed for flesh and blood is matched only by its grower's greed for the profits his employer's flower shop experiences from its new-found celebrity.

The play calls for a small hand-held plant and three increasingly bigger sizes that are operated by a human puppeteer.

"I looked all over to find suitable puppets, but, in the end, we decided to make our own," said David Stern, the show's director.

The three larger puppets will be manipulated by Brandon Norman, who said he is not looking forward to being inside them in what will probably be some hot weather.

"David has me set up with a blower and ice packs," he said. Although this is his first time as a puppeteer, the Gilsum, N.H., resident and hair dresser has a history in community theater that goes back to his youth and to the same spot he is in today.

"My first show was in 'Babes in Toyland' here at Main Street Arts when I was five years old," he said.

His last performance was as LeFou in a production of "Beauty and the Beast" last year, and he was drawn to get back into theater for this show by the fact that his wife Morganna is also in it.

Stern will provide Audrey II's voice in its larger incarnations, uttering the famous command, "Feed me."

Music director for the production is Ken Olsson, with other cast members Liam Johnson of Brattleboro as Seymour, Audrey II's keeper and feeder; Robin Keefe of Springfield as the human Audrey and Seymour's girlfriend; and Dominick DiBenedetto of Keene, N.H., as Mushnik, owner of the flower shop.

Johnson appeared as Tobias Ragg in the MSA winter production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, for which he received rave reviews. He played the title role in last year's Bat Boy, and was most recently seen locally in the Vermont Theatre Company's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Keefe also had a role in Bat Boy and has appeared in productions of Chicago, Nunsense and Over the River. The mother of three girls, she finds theater a good way to relax. "I need it. It makes my heart beat," she said.

An eighth-grade English teacher at Keene Middle School, DiBenedetto has a list of theater accomplishments that goes back to summer camp when he played Jerry Lee Lewis in a kids' radio show. That led to a role in Oliver! in middle school and eventually adult roles in Godspell, Shrek, Beauty and the Beast, and You Can't Take it With You.

Other members of the cast are Christy Wendlandt, Allie McGahie and Morganna Ekkens as the Ronettes, and Andrew Flaherty as the nasty dentist Orin Scrivello.

Shoshana Brass of Putney is choreographer. Costuming is by Terry Copple and Lisa Hull, who are in their 10th year of costuming for the Keene Lions Club productions.

Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 29, 30 and July 1, with a matinee July 1 at 2 p.m. The show is also part of the Great River Theater Festival in Putney the next weekend, where it will be staged at the Greenhoe Theater on the Landmark College campus Thursday, Friday and Saturday, July 6, 7 and 8 at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m.

Tickets for the Saxtons River performances are $18 for adults and $8 for youth 12 and younger in advance or $20 and $10 at the door and can be purchased online at mainstreetarts.org or by contacting MSA at 802-869-2960 or info@mainstreetarts.org.

Information about the Great River Theater Festival can be found at greatriverfestival.org.

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