Casting is a concern with any musical. With ''Little Shop of Horrors,'' one of the biggest roles - literally - isn't going to be filled by someone showing up at an open audition.
The Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical, which was a long-running hit Off-Broadway and enjoyed a year-long run on Broadway two decades later, is inspired by a low-budget 1960 horror movie about a man-eating plant from outer space. And the more the plant eats, the bigger it gets.
How big? Well, you'll have to buy a ticket to see ''Little Shop of Horrors,'' this year's musical for Summer Stock 25 at Kent-Trumbull Theatre, to find out.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Andy Gray
‘‘Little Shop of Horrors’’ opens Friday at Kent State University at Trumbull.
Puppet designer Valerie Kuehn-Engstrom demonstrates the middle-sized Audrey II puppet, which fits over the actor’s right arm to be manipulated. The plant puppet is a pivotal character in the musical ‘‘Little Shop of Horrors.’’
''You shouldn't give it away,'' Valerie Kuehn-Engstrom said. ''It should be magic.''
Kuehn-Engstrom is the puppet designer responsible for bringing to life the man-eating plant, dubbed ''Audrey II'' by Seymour, the lovelorn flower shop employee who discovers it.
Her availability is one of the reasons Kent-Trumbull decided to do the show.
If you go
WHAT: Kent-Trumbull Summer Stock 35 - ''Little Shop of Horrors''
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and July 20-21; and 27-28 and 3 p.m. Sunday and July 22 and 29
WHERE: Kent State University at Trumbull Theatre, 4314 Mahoning Ave. N.W., Champion
HOW MUCH: $15 for adults, $12 for students and senior citizens and $10 for children ages 11 and younger. For reservations or more information, call 330-675-8887.
THE CAST: Joshua Scott, Hannah Gillespie, Joe Asente, Melanie Hameed, Kyle Merritt, Tina Janis, Kat Safreed, Patience Knowles, Brooke Mayle, Emily Schrader, Emelia Sherin, Philip Cuthbertson, John Monroe, Jake Glosser, Mark Hameed, Eileen Larson, Mikey McPherson, Susan Montecalvo, Casshan Wallace, Chloe Book, Cheri Busko, Niki Cole, Evan Graham, Justin Kenny, Christiana Ozimek, J.T. Rodriguez, Joanna Rose, Katie Schrader, Kyle Shaffer, Angela Sproviero and Janet Wellington.
''The first point of discussion is, 'Can we get a puppet?''' director Tom Hitmar said. ''There are sources - others who have done it and have the puppet in their loft and you can rent it. But they also charge an enormous amount of money. Tony Kovacic, the technical director here, knew Valerie Engstrom; that was our in. If she was willing to do the puppet, we could do the show.''
Kuehn-Engstrom has worked in the theater as a craftsperson since the mid-'70s, including working in the Macy's Parade Studio from 1979 to 2000 creating floats for the Thanksgiving Parade, a short stint with Jim Henson Productions for ''Fraggle Rock'' and extensive theater experience. The Illinois native met her husband, Tom Engstrom, while both were working for Macy's, and the couple bought a home in Mecca after they had children so their kids could go to school locally instead of in the New York City area.
While Tom spent most of his time working in New York, Valerie primarily stayed in Ohio and focused on being a mom during the school year.
''I didn't do a lot (when they were younger),'' she said. ''I tend to get too consumed by it when I'm working on something, and I didn't think that was fair to them.''
Their daughters now are 23 and 21, so Kuehn-Engstrom has been doing more work in recent years, including a stint at Carousel Dinner Theatre with Kovacic (with whom she also worked at Macy's) until the Akron theater closed in 2009.
But ''Little Shop'' presents its own set of challenges.
''I haven't done anything like this for a long time,'' she said. ''The problem with the big one is it has to eat people; the problem is self-explanatory. It has to do the things it's required to do and still swallow actors.''
One of the things theater companies get when they purchase rights to stage ''Little Shop'' is the designs to build an Audrey II. But to operate the puppet as designed, it would take a skilled puppeteer who also is part contortionist. Since that's a skill set that might not be found in the mostly young actors auditioning for Summer Stock 35, Kuehn-Engstrom decided to draw on her parade float experience.
''I'm doing it a completely different way than they did it Off-Broadway,'' she said. ''It's sort of Macy's meets Muppets.''
Not to reveal all of the magicians' tricks, but since a puppeteer doesn't have to support the weight of the costume, she didn't have to worry as much about how heavy the mechanism is that controls Audrey II's movements. Kuehn-Engstrom still was working on the exterior of the Audrey II earlier this week, not that she would have let anyone take pictures of it, even it was finished.
''It should be a surprise,'' she said.
It's one of three Audreys that needed built - the small model that Seymour first finds, a larger puppet that fits over the actor's arm and the final plant.
Hitmar said the script actually calls for four different-sized plants, but they were able to cut down on the design and labor by making some changes in the final model to serve all of the requirements for the two largest Audreys.
In addition to Hitmar, Kovacic and Kuehn-Engstrom, the production team includes Mackenzie Pinto, music director; Barbara Ozimek, costume designer; Leslie Brown, lighting designer; Emelia Sherin and her fellow Ronnettes, choreographers; and Dawn Brazofsky, stage manager.
For the human cast, Hitmar said he had worked with most of the actors before. The only newcomer was Joshua Scott.
''I took a chance on him, and he's just wonderful,'' Hitmar said. ''He got some 3D glasses, punched the lens out and brought them to the audition to look more like Seymour. Here's a kid willing to go that extra step.''