As a resident of downtown Orlando, it's tempting to assume you're living at the epicenter of the arts in Central Florida, and dismiss driving nearly an hour for a musical, especially one I've seen many times before. But it's hard to imagine a better venue to see Little Shop of Horrors – Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's hummable homage to old horror films – than Eustis' Historic State Theatre, which was itself once a vintage movie house. And while I've seen Little Shops that were bigger and slicker, I've seen few – including the 2004 Broadway version – with quite as much heart as the production being presented (now through April 15) by producer/director/star Derek Critzer.
When I first covered Critzer in this column in 2015, he was making an ambitious attempt to mount the infamous megaflop Carrie. At the time, I praised his canny casting, and noted his mix of envelope-pushing tech and scrappy DIY spirit. Three years later, the same could still be said about his latest show. In Little Shop, leading lady Savannah Pedersen gives an emotional grounded, grown-up performance as Audrey, while generating genuine sparks with Critzer's Seymour. Frank Siano, who previously played Mr. Mushnik at the 2011 Orlando Fringe, again makes a marvelous Machiavellian mensch, and Robb Ross hits hysterical high notes as the nitrous-huffing dentist. And in a clever directorial twist, the do-wopping urchins (Nyeshia Smith, Felichia Chivaughn, Camila Camilo) become undercover aliens inciting the entire plot.
The set (designed by Critzer with David Tear), revolves on a computer-controlled turntable; Dana Mott's digital projections create swirling galaxies and splattered blood; and the giant Audrey II pod puppets (voiced by Eduardo Rivera on the first weekend and Melissa Vasquez on the second, with puppeteers Bradford Scott and Kirk Simpson inside) were built by a professional Las Vegas designer, who rented them to Critzer for the cost of shipping. And if some of the gizmos (or even an actor) didn't exactly operate as intended on opening night, the cast cheerfully compensated with full-throated harmonies (music directed by David Foust, leading an 8-piece live band), impassioned performances, and overall pluck.
Ordinarily, I advise against actors directing themselves. But after speaking with an exhausted Critzer following his first performance, it's apparent what a labor of love this show is for him; I'd almost say he was born to play Krelborn. "This is the first show I ever saw, in fifth grade," recalls Critzer. "I was obsessed from then on out, staging it on my back porch, making Audrey II's from wooden dowels and fabric." He directed a small-scale production in 2010 shortly after graduating high school, but "I didn't have the resources to do what I wanted with it." So it's natural that for his final production for Bay Street Players' Studio Series, where he's successfully mounted the musicals Memphis and Bonnie & Cylde in recent years, Critzer chose to direct his childhood favorite.
Next, Critzer and his Clandestine Arts theater company will move east to Sanford, where Derek is taking over the former Princess Theater on First Street. Only a year ago, I was writing about Winnie Wenglewick's efforts to turn that space into Dangerous Theatre, but she departed back to Denver late last year for family reasons, leaving renovations halfway done. "We were looking for an endeavor," says Critzer, "and talking about 'what's next?' when 20 minutes later I saw [Winnie's] post that she was leaving. About three years ago Josh Vickery [of CFCArts] told me, 'You need to get in that space,' and I hadn't even looked at it before."
Clandestine's plan for the Sanford space is to present 5 to 6 mainstage musicals (which will pay their cast and crew) each year, along with high school intensives and youth programs. And when the stage isn't occupied, they'll be renting it to other arts groups. "We want to be an affordable space for other local companies," promises Critzer. "I know what it's like to pay for space, it's expensive ... That's why I stopped doing things in Orlando, I couldn't make a profit because I was spending too much for rental." Right now, he's in the middle of renovating the space, restoring the split-venue setup Wenglewick turned back into a single large theater, and dreaming of the shows he'll soon be able to stage. "The space fell in our lap, and the funds came; the stars aligned. Everything happened at the right time," he enthuses. "We were terrified, but there's too much happening here that's right."