Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Why director Toff de Venecia is staging Little Shop of Horrors

In his youth, timed with a family tragedy, it introduced death and the absurdity of life

Nyoy Volante and Karylle Tatlonghari play the leads in The Sandbox Collective’s production of Little Shop of Horror.

Nyoy Volante, Karylle Tatlonghari, and director Toff de Venecia at the press briefing.

Little Shop of Horrors, the beloved stage musical, is having a return engagement this July at the Globe Auditorium of  the Maybank Performing Arts Theater in BGC. A presentation of  The Sandbox Collective, it stars Nyoy Volante and Karylle Tatlonghari. Its director is Sandbox Collective‘s founder, Toff de Venecia.

At a media briefing, Toff de Venecia said this production had been delayed by four years, no thanks to the pandemic. “We were supposed to open in July 2020. Then the pandemic happened. Most of our plans got waylaid,” he said.

But he didn’t give up on it. The show had to go on anyway, since he already had the rights to mount it. He has long been familiar with the material. In 2011, at 25 years old, he directed a production of the show for the Ateneo  Blue Repertory.

Toff de Venecia is flanked by Karylle Tatlonghari and the show’s musical director EJ Yatco.

“That production  has always been very special to me because I discovered my love for working with EJ Yatco, our musical director. It’s  always been our dream to  stage this musical again. It’s special because of the people I got to meet and work with, and perhaps also  because it was in that show I discovered my voice as a theater director,” he said.

“And I have an affinity for absurdists’ works. A talking plant that eats people?  It doesn’t get any more absurd than that. I really like absurdist things. It’s a reflection of the things happening in my head.”

To describe Little Shop of Horrors as an absurdist work may actually be an understatement—even more so when the story is told through song and dance. But at the time the musical opened in New York, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd  had been the toast of Broadway. Little Shop of Horrors made the ideal bookend to the Sondheim’s musical, which is about  a homicidal barber and a meat pie shop owner whose best pies in London used human beings as ingredients.

Little Shop of Horrors was first produced Off-Off Broadway in 1982. Its source material was unusual or also absurd: a B-monster movie released in 1960 by American International Pictures (famous for its low-budget beach party movies and film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories).   It was directed by the recently deceased Roger Corman, whose credits include the bizarre X:Man with the X-Ray Eyes and the psychedelic epic The Trip.

Little Shop of Horrors is about Seymour the nerdy florist  who cultivates a monster plant that feeds on human blood. Although far from being a classic, the movie gained a cult following. Perhaps the creators of the stage musical were among the movie audiences who made it a cult movie. The  music was composed by Alan Menken, with book and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman. This was the same team that  gained worldwide fame for the songs they wrote for the Disney blockbuster Beauty and the Beast.

Little Shop of Horrors was an inexpensive stage musical and uncomplicated to mount. It enjoyed a long run, though it didn’t qualify for the Tony Awards because it hadn’t opened on Broadway  (it finally did in 2003). Its film version was produced  in 1986, the year  Toff de Venecia  was born.  And it was the presentation of Repertory Philippines that he remembers. Many of these memories, however, were bittersweet and even tragic.

He said his long history with Little Shop of Horrors goes back to 2004. He was reading a magazine and glanced through its calendar of events. There he saw an entry on Little Shop of Horrors, which was playing at Onstage Greenbelt.

“So I came to the theater not knowing what it was about. But I was really  awestruck and dumbfounded by what I just saw. And then a few weeks after that, our house burned and my sister died. It was then when I started wondering about death and the absurdity of the world. I remember I was talking to a barkada at the Ateneo cafeteria shortly before the fire happened. I said to him, ‘Wow my life is so perfect right now. I couldn’t ask for anything more,’” he recalled.

The tragedy, he explained, somehow influenced the kind of shows he and Sandbox gravitated to. “So for the long term, medium term, and short term of it, this show has been very special to me and for a lot us here are at Sandbox,” he said.

De Venecia said he wants to recapture the essence and spirit of that Ateneo production, but on a bigger scale and in a bigger venue. A band will accompany the cast. The director has assembled an impressive one to play the lead and supporting characters. Seymour will be played by Nyoy Volante, the leading lady is Karylle Tatlonghari.

Both actors grew up with the film version which starred Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Moranis’ perennial co-star Steve Martin as the  nefarious dentist. Tatlonghari remembers the movie with fondness, and she expressed delight over this chance to star in this production. “If I wasn’t cast in the lead I’d be happy to play the dentist. I like that part because my father is a dentist,” she said with a laugh.

Tatlonghari and Volante are two of the most visible performers in the country today. She is co-host of the popular noontime variety show It’s Showtime. Volante is also on that show as judge of the singing contest, Tawag ng Tanghalan. Now if anyone was truly qualified to be judge in a singing competition, it would be these two. They’ve wowed audiences in stage musicals—Volante in Jersey Boys, Tatlonghari in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel.

Both stars have a huge following, and this should be beneficial to Little Shop of Horrors. Tatlonghari recalled singing a song from Carousel during a commercial break of It’s Showtime. She said the live audience was very receptive, and she urged them to go see it. She plans to do the same for Little Shop of Horrors.

The two stars joined the cast to perform some of the songs from the show. Everyone wore green shirts with the show’s title emblazoned on the front and back. As a result, the venue was filled with people wearing green, as if it was a La Sallian event. The show’s director, however, wore a white polo over his green shirt, ever the loyal Atenean.

The show’s alternate lead performers Sue Ramirez and Reb Atadero perform a song with Karylle Tatlonghari and Nyoy Volante.

Sandbox Collectives production of Little Shop of Horrors  plays every weekend beginning  July 6. The run ends on the 28th.

About author


He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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