Students aim for thespian honors with “Little Shop of Horrors”

Friday Harbor students are performing one of their biggest shows yet with the Broadway musical “Little Shop of Horrors.” With thespian competition judges scheduled to attend the production, the pressure is on.

“These students have so much passion, drive and talent, so I thought let’s just do it,” Jenni Merrit, play director and Friday Harbor High School’s drama teacher, said, noting that it was the high schoolers themselves who elected to participate in the competition. “They want to be able to show the play to more than just the island.”

“Little Shop of Horrors” will be showing at the San Juan Community Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 16 and Friday, Jan. 17; at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 18; and the final matinee at 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 19. Tickets are $19 for adults, $11 for students and $5 student rush at the door only. Thursday is “Pay What You Can” night.

“I used to watch [‘Little Shop of Horrors’] with my dad all the time,” Merritt said. “It is one of my all-time favorite shows, and I knew the kids love it too.”

“Little Shop of Horrors” is a dark comedy featuring ‘60s style rock songs including “Suddenly Seymour,” “Skid Row” — also known as “Downtown” — and “Don’t Feed the Plants.” The storyline follows Seymour, played by Luke Fincher, a meek florist living on skid row. Seymour comes across a strange plant that looks similar to a Venus flytrap. Seymour names the plant Audrey II, after his crush Audrey — played by Presley Clark. Audrey, the human, is in an abusive relationship with Orin, who is played by Talisen Kilpatrick-Boe. Audrey II is voiced by Tanner James, with Eve Hulse as its puppeteer.

The plant appears to be struggling to survive until Seymour discovers it needs to feed on blood.

As Audrey II thrives on this new diet and begins to grow, the public becomes enthralled by the plant. The flower shop, owned by Mushnik, played by Josh Mellinger, becomes famous as a result. However, the larger Audrey II becomes the more the plant’s thirst for blood grows.

Merritt explained that over the course of the play, Seymour and human Audrey transform into stronger individuals. Seymour is at first a shy scared orphan, who — through the plant — learns to stand up for what he believes and wants. Audrey, Merritt continued, believes she deserves to be in an abusive relationship at the start of the story. As the play progresses, Audrey learns both her worth and capabilities.

While the overall message of “Little Shop of Horrors” is “Don’t feed the Plants,” Merritt joked, she explained the play is really about learning what one wants or doesn’t want, making choices and paying attention to the result of those choices.

“Audrey and Seymour become successful as a result of feeding the plant,” Merritt said. “However, they are still depressed and they have to ask themselves why that is.”

Like the Chorus in ancient Greek plays, the musical is narrated by the ‘doo-wop girls,’ Chrystal, played by Chiara Power; Ronnette, played by Taylor Hollis; and Chiffon, played by Kyla Balcomb-Bartok. Besides singing and acting, these three have a dozen costume changes throughout the show.

“I was fine with them in the same outfit throughout,” Merritt noted. “But they decided they wanted to up the ante.”

Going above and beyond, she continued, is typical of this particular group of actors.

“These kids are so passionate and driven,” Merritt said. “They get along so well and have such respect for each other.”

Many of them have been acting since they were very young, according to Merritt, through the family theater program with Penelope Haskew.

Five years ago, the young actors formed Friday Harbor Thespian Society Troupe 8224. The thespian society is a group of San Juan Islanders in grades 9-12.

“[The thespian society] is a really great way to have theater all around, not just during performances,” thespian society president Chiara Power said.

The number fluctuates between 20-25 members, according to Power. They meet once a week during lunch to work on both community projects and fundraisers. Funds go toward items like production needs — including wood and paint for sets, clothing for costumes or the rights to a script. The money also goes toward travel expenses to attend competitions.

Power, along with Mel Taylor, won at national thespian society competitions last year. After successfully participating in national solo competitions, the troupe applied for the first time this year, to enter the full production of “Little Shop of Horrors” with multiple cast members. A competition judge will be attending one of the shows.

Should the troupe receive good ratings they could compete at the state level, or even go on to compete nationally. The ratings, Merritt explained are fair, good, excellent and superior. An excellent or superior rating means they are accepted in the national competition.

“Either way we will get feedback,” Merritt said.

The cost of getting adjudicated and having a judge come to the performance was around $1,200 she added, which was funded by the San Juan Island Art Council.

Two other judges watching two performances from the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle as well. Fifth Avenue holds an annual awards ceremony in June, recognizing high school groups across the state in an event similar to the Tony awards.

The performers do not know which show any of the judges will be attending, Merritt explained, though she herself knows when they will be in the audience.

“I’ll be watching behind the back rows pacing even more than usual,” Merritt said with a laugh.

Both the thespian society competition and 5th Ave awards are more about recognition than prizes, Merritt said, “We are thespians. We just crave the applause.”

Donations specifically to the Friday Harbor Thespian Society can be given directly to the community theater via check, with “Thespian Society Little Shop of Horrors” written on the memo line.

By participating in and attending the thespian society competitions or events, Power said, San Juan Island’s young actors have made friends all over the country and discovered they are not alone in their love of theater.

Whether the group is accepted into the competition or not, Power added, she would love to get a big group of students together and attend the nationals, which take place the third week of June in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Merritt herself became involved in theatre at a young age, learning under her predecessor Fred Yonkers. Today, after approximately seven years of teaching drama, Merritt said she is constantly amazed by her students. Not only are they talented actors, but many of them are also involved in extra-curricular activities besides theater, like sports, organizations like the Prevention Coalition and are valedictorians as well.

“Don’t underestimate these kids,” Merritt said. “A bunch of them are going to be Broadway stars — I can feel it.”