Early in the CONVERSATION with Dana Tretta and Christopher Kale Jones about their roles in the superb Mercury Theater Chicago production of “Little Shop of Horrors” directed by L Walter Stearns with musical director Eugene Dizon, we learn just how fiendishly desperate—and painfully real—things are for the star-crossed lovers. Jones plays Seymour Krelborn, the orphaned employee who lives at Mushnik’s Skid Row Floral Shop in the macabre 1982 hit with music by Alan Menken and book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Seymour has dreams of capturing the affections of his sweet co-worker Audrey played by Tretta, who is mired in an abusive relationship with Dr. Orin, a dentist who lives his life gleefully inflicting pain on others. With Mushnik’s business withering on the vine, the two convince him to showcase an odd little plant, known as ‘Audrey II, that Seymour has been nursing back to life. The trouble is as Audrey II’s influence and appetite grows, everyone else starts looking like the next course on the menu.
Not every facet of “Little Shop’s” outrageously satirical premise fits neatly into place all these years later. Tretta points out that while Audrey’s abusive relationship with Dr. Orin is an unavoidable story element that provides the motivation for Seymour to take a stand and confront the bully, it is challenging to portray a woman caught up in that seemingly hopeless situation. How that all resolves itself, and the events that are then set in motion, are central to the power-seeking Audrey II’s own story development. And along the way, a tender love story evolves between Audrey and Seymour that features the brilliant early collaboration of Menken and Ashman in a score that includes “Grow For Me,” “Somewhere That’s Green,” and “Suddenly Seymour.”
Jones played Seymour—with his wife Jenna Coker-Jones in the role of Audrey—at Ford’s Theatre a few years ago. The former Frankie Valli in the first national tour of ‘Jersey Boys’ is a Northwestern graduate who recently returned to Chicago and concert appearances at the Mercury and Marriott last year with his Bobby Darin show and Michael Ingersoll’s Artist’s Lounge Live series. Tretta, a graduate of Villanova, is well-known in theaters throughout Chicagoland and shares her experiences with directors Nick Bowling, Lili-Anne Brown and moving recollections of working with the late Rachel Rockwell. Last season, Tretta appeared as Gilda Radner in the critically acclaimed “BUNNY BUNNY: The Gilda Radner Story” directed by Warner Crocker at the Mercury.
There is much more in our fascinating conversation with Dana Tretta and Christopher Kale Jones, the two powerhouse performers who are part of the feeding frenzy currently underway on North Southport. PODCAST
Seymour and Audrey as love interests …
Dana Tretta (DT): “I don't know if Audrey knows it exists at first and I think she definitely has feelings for Seymour from the beginning, has worked with him for a long time, but she doesn't have a whole lot of love for herself, so doesn't feel like she deserves someone as sweet as Seymour nor really anybody else. I wouldn't necessarily say that the love is unfulfilled because they do see each other finally with each other's help and have a glorious moment together.”
Finding Audrey …
DT: “I think the abuse is just this situation that is there that helps give Seymour the biggest reason to do what he does which is approach someone very scary and abusive with a gun to try and protect Audrey and then feed this person to the plant. … It is unfortunate that she's in this situation. She doesn't feel like she can do anything else about it. “I'm too afraid to be alone,” she says, “He's the only fella I got.” That's hard for me to say every night as Dana, but putting myself in her position, there are people that don't want to be alone, so they will stay in a situation that is terrible for them. It's not until, and it's through all of these crazy circumstances that it happens … it's uncomfortable, but those situations are there … he finds the power within himself to say, hey, you don't need this anymore because guess what, you’re special, and she has the ability to open her eyes to him.”
Desperate need of characters …
Christopher Kale Jones (CKJ): “I read a quote recently that I hope I don't butcher but really struck me as true, which is “We don't get what we want in this life. We get what we believe we deserve.” So, we don't even get what we deserve. We get what we believe we deserve. And I think you see that running all over these characters because as an audience member, you're looking at Seymour and Audrey like, well, you guys should be together. He likes you. You like him. And in Seymour's mind, she might as well be the President of the United States. He's never going to get a girl like Audrey who's that pretty and that put together and knows about clothes and the world and things like that. For him that's just beyond the stars. They get to kind of discover through desperate need and other things that are put on them through the course of the show, how to surmount those obstacles and finally go after each other before a somewhat tragic end.”
Different parallels …
CKJ: “It's funny, I have my own way in to some of the storyline with the plant because I don't have a lot of sense memory of ever owning a plant from outer space that ate people! DT: For the best. CKJ: Yeah, it's probably for the best! It's interesting that the show plays in a lot of different parallels. And one of the things that struck me as I was reading it this time around was how the plant could also in a weird way, kind of double for an addiction of sorts because a lot of people find themselves frustrated in life not getting the things they want or feel like they need. And then they find something that suddenly just makes that go away for a bit and makes everything feel okay and makes it seem like things get better. And then they doubled down on that thing and then triple down and then pretty soon they're into that thing. And we see that happening with the plant here. So even though it's not a direct one-to-one sort of an analogy, it was for me a fun way in this time … it's something that Seymour can pour his love into that he really wants to direct toward Audrey.”
Working with Rachel Rockwell …
DT: “(Rachel Rockwell) got her first directing gig doing “You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown” at Marriott. I was hired for an understudy so I was in the room all the time but in the back just kind of quietly watching. Rachel was the director, Stacy Fleischer the choreographer and Roberta Duchak music director. So, these three powerful women and I was fresh and new. I had never understudied before. I was in awe. I didn't know what to say most of the time. I was scared to talk to anybody, but I just soaked in that experience hardcore and thought I've never felt so lucky to quietly learn so much. That was the beginning of Rachel's directing career. She called me a year later to be in the “Wizard of Oz” and I thought, “Oh, I can finally play Dorothy!” But I was hired as the Mayor of Munchkin City. Rachel knew what she was doing. … she always had this wicked sense of humor but never talked down to the children, ever, with her work, and had the most enormous amount of heart that she translated to the stage that I always respected dearly. I got to work with her again on “It's A Wonderful Life Radio Show,” … while we were doing that, she said, “Do you know “Hair?” and I was like, not really. She's like, I'm calling you in for “Hair.” And little did I know that that was going to become one of my favorite theatrical experiences with Rachel at the helm. It was when the Paramount had just opened. It was the last show of their first season and she gathered an enormous amount of talent and love and care and she loved that show. Listened to the record with her Dad growing up. And from that first day of rehearsal you could tell it was in her bones. That all just seeped out into all of us and became something bigger than all of us. That's what she created. She constantly created wonder and love and family with everything that she did.”
On stage with Dana …
CKJ: “It's really been a pleasure to work with Dana. She's so giving. … I was a little sick during previews and I was just getting a little run down and there was one show in particular, I was like, I just don't feel like I'm all the way here today, which is never fun to feel on stage as an actor. Every scene I had that night with Dana, she is right there and she is living in the moment, which is what you always aspire to as an actor. And so, for me, it is really a gift to be able to do the show with someone of that caliber and that intensity because it takes the work out of it and you can just be present and tell the story of these lovable losers for the two hours that we have on stage.”
The performing Jones family …
CKJ: “(5 yr. old daughter Presley) for a brief period, was doing these ‘How To’ videos on Instagram. She was calling them “hacks.” She just loved the word “hack.” So, she's like, “This is my ‘Make Your Cereal’ Hack. So, you put your cereal in the bowl and you put your milk in it. And it's just great!“ Yes. @PresleyRoseJones on Instagram. If that could just blow up and become viral, that's perfect! … Jenna is an incredible actress and I was thrilled to be able to do this show with her back at Ford’s. We moved to Chicago a few years ago and like Dana mentioned, Walter (Stearns) and Eugene (Dizon) who run the Mercury have a knack for giving people breaks that are meaningful and then other people notice and it causes the community to see people in a new light. My wife has that story. She'd been here auditioning for about a year and a half and gotten in some rooms and had been called back several times but no one wanted to take the plunge. It's hard when you're joining a community because people want to get to know you and we totally get that. So many people have been so welcoming and nice here, but the first people to say, “We're going to do it. We're going to cast you.” were Walter and Eugene. They put Jenna in a production of “Company” that played (at Venus) last year. And in that first production that she really got to do here in the Chicago scene, she was nominated for a Jeff Award playing the role of crazy Amy doing the ”Not Getting Married Today” number, a comedic fun part in the show. She truly is an incredible actress and it's a thrill to be able to be on this rollercoaster ride of marriage and parenthood in the midst of being actors. And I'm thankful for the examples we've had in our own community here in Chicago of people who are in the arts who also have kids because you don't see that a lot. It's good to know it's possible before you have to live it. I've got a friend who is a bass player and his wife is a piano player and they've been showing me for years how they make it work with their kid. So we knew, okay, we can do this. It will take some work but we can make it happen. I'm grateful we get to do it in this loving community.”
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
MERCURY THEATER CHICAGO
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
through April 28th
3745 North Southport Avenue
For more reviews, visit: Theatre In Chicago