PITTSFIELD — The way director Ethan Heard sees it, "Little Shop of Horrors" is one of the most beloved musical-comedies in American theater.
It's a particular hit on the community theater circuit and with high schools. It's among the five most frequently produced high school shows, according to Heard.
"It's tight, lean, athletic. I love the score," says Heard, who is turning his professional eye on the musical. His production for Berkshire Theatre Group officially opens Saturday evening — after a series of previews — at the Colonial Theatre, in Pittsfield's Upstreet Cultural District, where it is scheduled to run through July 23.
"It is such a pleasure to be in the room with these characters and these actors," Heard said during an interview in the Colonial Theatre lobby, where he was joined by the show's leads — Stanley Bahorek as Seymour, a nebbishy clerk in a Skid Row flower shop, and Lindsay Nicole Chambers as Audrey, with whom Seymour has fallen in love, unbeknownst to her.
There is a third significant other in this love story — Audrey II, a voracious bloodthirsty plant with whom Seymour strikes a Faustian bargain.
"Little Shop of Horrors" began life in 1960 as an unassuming black comedy directed by horror shlockmeister Roger Corman and featuring Jack Nicholson in his movie debut, playing a masochistic dentist. The movie — reportedly made in only two days — developed a loyal cult following over the years, which led Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to adapt it into a musical. It opened Off-Off-Broadway in 1982 before moving that same year to Off-Broadway's Orpheum Theatre, where it ran for just over five years. It wasn't until years later that "Little Shop of Horrors" made its way to Broadway. A film version of the musical, directed by Frank Oz, was released in 1986.
The biggest twist in Heard's production is the plant, Audrey II, normally represented by a gravely voiced puppet.
"There are a lot of theatrical supply houses that will provide an Audrey," Heard said with an impish smile, "but I wanted something different."
So, Heard cast lip-syncing drag queen Taurean Everett as the onstage Audrey II and actor-singer Bryonha Parham as Audrey II's offstage voice.
"When Kate (Maguire, BTG's CEO and artistic director) asked me if I would do this show, I had no trouble saying yes," said Heard, whose BTG directing credits include "Cat and the Canary." "A Little Night Music" and last season's "Bells Are Ringing."
"There is such genius in adapting the (original 1960) film into a musical. And this is such a timeless, universal story about an underdog from a blighted neighborhood who strikes a bargain with the devil.
"But I really wanted to rethink the plant. I felt here was an opportunity to breathe fresh life into the show. I love lip-syncing and drag and there is something, to me, about the disembodied voice."
Heard says the biggest challenges he has found in directing "Little Shop of Horrors" have had to do with maintaining a balance between the show's exuberant fun and its dark side, and hewing to the precision with which the dialogue and music need to be timed.
"There is a lot of (musical) underscoring," Heard said, "and the lines have to fit in precisely in those moments, I didn't realize how hard that would be.
"I also wanted to balance the menace and danger with the comedy. We're still mixing that brew."
Chambers says she never thought she'd get a chance to play Audrey. She's not the physical type that would typically catch the attention of a casting director for this show. She's grateful for the opportunity.
"It's been fun to explore Audrey's fragile but also fiery nature. It's all really a lot bigger than you initially think it might be."
It's also given Chambers the chance to work with Bahorek — a lifelong friend since their days as middle school and high school classmates in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio — for the first time in their professional careers.
Bahorek, whose Broadway credits include "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," said he's not generally a fan of revivals, either as an audience member or as an actor. He acknowledges he had a particular bias about "Little Shop," "this 'it's-a-high-school-show' bias," Bahorek said. "I thought Seymour was a simple character."
But Heard and his approach appealed to Bahorek; that and the chance to work with Chambers. He's not sorry. He's found that Seymour is not as simple a role as he expected.
"Well," he said, "it's a ride but it's a buffet for an actor. It forces you to make very specific choices. I mean you are doing Borscht Belt shtick one moment, and feeling very comfortable doing it, and the next minute you're taking on a beautiful, tender ballad.
"This role is as deep as Grand Canyon and as high as Mount Kilimanjaro."
What: "Little Shop of Horrors." Music by Alan Menken. Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Directed by Ethan Heard; choreography by Parker Esse; musical direction by Rick Bertone
When: Now through July 23 (press opening — Saturday at 8). Evenings — Monday through Thursday at 7; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Thursday and Saturday at 2
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
Where: The Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield
Tickets: $65-$25; preview — $55; Saturday opening night — $75-35
How: (413) 997-4444; berkshiretheatregroup.org; directly at Colonial box office