Applause, Applause: Two Casts Perform BHS ‘Little Shop of Horrors’
Branford High School Performing Arts rehearsed for the upcoming musical Little Shop of Horrors, which runs both live and streaming from Wednesday, May 12 to Sunday, May 16. Here, Dorian Hayes (DJ) talks with Liev Shpitalnik (Seymour) in an Orange cast rehearsal @SPN Cut:(Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound)
With two casts set to perform three shows each; and rehearsals done in about half the time it usually takes, Branford High School (BHS) Performing Arts has pulled off a modern miracle to put on a full-scale stage production of Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors, coming to the Cathyann Roding Auditorium at BHS (and streaming live) from Wednesday to Sunday, May 12 to 16.
Due to pandemic protocols, all live shows have been limited to just 100 audience members per show and are expected to sell out to accommodate family members of the cast and crew.
A New Show
Last year’s BHS production of Sweeney Todd got through full dress rehearsal, but didn’t make it to live performances because COVID-related restrictions closed schools through the end of the school year.
While many high schools held on to licensing extensions granted for 2020 shows, co-directors Colin Sheehan and Michael Martone decided to bring an entirely new production to the BHS stage in 2021.
“Sweeney Todd was a special show for our seniors last year, so we couldn’t repeat last year’s show, and we’re just going to make Little Shop special for this year’s seniors,” said Sheehan.
The co-directors had to wait until March 2021 before finally receiving a green light to produce some type of student performance, with many unknowns still factored in due to COVID-19. While casting about for a new show, they hit upon Little Shop of Horrors, which grew from its off-Broadway origins to spawn the cult-favorite movie, then went to Broadway in 2003.
Once Sheehan and Martone secured the licensing, they held auditions, cast the players, and got to work.
“We love a good challenge,” said Sheehan. “We mounted the show in six weeks—we normally have three months.”
The show is also known for some very memorable puppets, including an alarming talking plant, “Audrey II,” and the BHS production has them. Puppeteers include four students and BHS musical alumnus Scott A. Towers, who is also assisting with other aspects of the production.
“The puppets have been seen on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. They’re from a production company called Monkey Boys Productions,” said Sheehan. “We spent a pretty penny on them, but we think it’s worth it.”
Sheehan said they selected Little Shop of Horrors in part due to its nimble staging and smaller cast, but also because they felt they could commit to double-casting each part and splitting the show performances into two groups.
“Little Shop is a very small cast. We’ve cast more than the average, and we’ve done two casts,” said Sheehan, adding the effort included making sure students were rehearsing safely within COVID-19 protocols, while also making preparations to have students who could provide back-up for a given part, if needed.
The casting also follows the school district’s “orange” and “blue” student cohort model.
Little Shop’s central character, Seymour Krelborn, will be played by BHS sophomore Liev Shpitalnik for three performances with the show’s “Orange” cast and by senior David Rosenthal for three shows with the show’s “Blue” cast. Rosenthal was cast as the BHS lead in Sweeney Todd in 2020, with Shpitalnik as understudy.
When everything came to a stop last year, “it was definitely sad, but at the time we didn’t know that it would be for as long as it was,” said Rosenthal. “But I think that we will always hold Sweeney Todd in our hearts and think of it as an amazing experience. Even though we didn’t get to perform, we still got to do a musical. We also got the experience of preparing for a [Stephen] Sondheim show. It taught me a lot.”
Rosenthal’s previous stage credits include Broadway’s Matilda. He will study next year at the Boston Conservatory.
Rosenthal is excited for audiences to see Little Shop and said the cast and crew have a lot of confidence in Sheehan and Martone’s ability to put on a great show in tight time line.
“We trusted them and relied on them and their process,” said Rosenthal. “This is the first time we’ve done two casts, which is another challenge, but we’ve gotten through it and the show is amazing. You would never know it was all done in six weeks.”
The show will be backed by a seven-player live pit orchestra, overseen by Martone, who is also a BHS music teacher.
Martone’s expertise in set design is recognizable in this production, which includes an automated set that was motorized with remote control work by student designer Christian Bjork, a robotics team member who also helped Martone with the Sweeney Todd movable set in 2020. Parents of current and past theater students helped paint the set.
The show’s choreography is by Paola Rarick, artistic director at Branford’s StudioONE Dance Center. Rarick has worked with the cast and particularly the show’s “Divas,” a total of eight players, with four in each cohort (usually, the production has three Divas). Senior Sophia Coppola, who is playing a Diva, said she’s thrilled to have the chance to perform on the BHS stage in a year when she wasn’t sure whether the show would go on.
“Like everyone else, I kind of thought it was going to be another year gone by, and I would have missed my last two shows,” said Coppola. “Last year was so difficult to lose. I just loved last year’s show. But getting to be on stage again with a cast that I love so dearly is so exciting,” Coppola said. “I know that opening night, I’m going to cry—both for the other cast and my cast, because it’s just so moving. I’m just ecstatic to be able to on the stage again.”
The show’s producer is Barbara Barringham, a veteran BHS Performing Arts parent. BHS math teacher Alica Loesche is the show’s costume designer and BHS math teacher Lauren Farrell is managing ticket sales.
Other student players include Bella Rarick and Alina Catania (playing the parts of Audrey), Lucas Johnson and Gabe Villa (Orin), Kyle Bissell (Mushnik), Dorian Hayes (Audrey II) and additional Divas Lexi Brown, Hanna Bloomquist, Ash Duong, Amelie Parczany, Lexi Mascaro, Layla Richmond, and Carly Pierre-Louis. The show’s narrators are Eric Gagliardi and Stella Pennacchini. Ensemble players are Levi Burger, Jade Bocciarelli, Matt Cabahug, Dylan Kealey, Bella Desorbo, Ava Dombrowski, Matt Law, Alex Pombo, Molly Pombo, Victoria Freeman, Casey Maymon, Nick Schettino, Caroline Spaulding, and Aubrey Weted. Student puppeteers are Dimitrios Gionteris, Lenora Longway, David Rosenthal, and Liev Shipitalnik.
“It was a challenge for us, it was a challenge for them, but we can’t wait to hear a live audience applaud,” said Sheehan.
BHS Performing Arts presents Little Shop of Horrors on Wednesday May 12, Thursday, May 13, and Friday, May 14 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, May 15 at 1 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday May 16 at 2 p.m. in the Cathyann Roding Auditorium at BHS, 185 East Main Street. Advance tickets sales are required and limited due to COVID-19; virtual viewing tickets are also available. For more information and to purchase tickets, find Branford High School Performing Arts on Facebook (@BranfordHighPerformingArts).