By Garth Snow
The silence of spring break filled Leo Jr./Sr. High School, but the tap, tap of a hammer echoed through the halls leading to the auditorium.
The lighthearted atmosphere among the set and props crew seemed at odds with the play that will fill that stage in a few short weeks.
Director Rowdy Halter agreed that “Little Shop of Horrors” is best described as a dark comedy. “It is based on an old sci-fi B movie from the ’50s, black-and-white, just kind of goofy horror comedy that an alien plant comes and eats everybody and destroys the world,” Halter said.
Then along came the musical. Alan Menken, more recently known for his music for Disney animated films, penned the “Little Shop” trademark song “Suddenly, Seymour,” and American has been rooting for unlikely hero Seymour Krelborn since 1982.
Leo junior Kelsey Erexson is not only the set manager for the production, but has the coveted leading role.
“It was a dream role of mine, so I was very excited when I got it,” he said. “One of my songs is called “Grow for Me,’ and I’m singing to the plant, begging it to grow, because it’s sick. And a lot happens and I fall in love with my co-worker and I sing a song called ‘Suddenly, Seymour.’ “
“We’re right around a month in it right now, and we’re supposed to be off-script next week so we have to have
all our lines memorized,” he said. That part is going well, he said. “I have a lot going on because I am also set head for this production. Rowdy and I work together pretty closely on that, getting it all figured out.”
Halter is directing his second production at the high school, but has been part of the East Allen County Schools music staff for 10 years. He was part of drama while a student at Leo High School, where he graduated in 2003. He teaches general elementary music four days each week at Leo Elementary School, and one day each week at New Haven Intermediate School. He also directs the spring musicals at the elementary school. “The elementary has a long tradition of doing musicals every spring, and they were in a rotation of doing the same shows every three years,” he said. “I decided 25 years of the same thing is enough.” So he staged “Seussical” and “Xanadu,” and so on.
Then, last fall, he took on the high school productions. “Leading Ladies” offered the right challenge, he said. “It was a modern telling of a Shakespeare play, and they actually had to learn some Shakespeare,” he said.
That play, like “Little Shop,” featured a small cast. “We had 25 or 30 try out for 15 parts,” he said of the latest effort.
He said Erexson has a beautiful voice, and one of his best friends — Bella Hadley — was the right fit for Seymour’s girlfriend, Audrey. “She was in the book. She knew her character,” Halter said.
Steve Steffey, Halter’s longtime friend and a zumba instructor in Leo, is the choreographer. Music director Lori Kapell has played for the Arena Dinner Theater in Fort Wayne.
“Other than that, it’s me and the kids,” Halter said. “I want this to be a student-run organization as much as it can be. We have a student bookkeeper, and students in charge of building sets and running lights.” Student Sydney Gamble is in charge of publicity.
Halter said Leo has room for more theater work. “The middle-schoolers really want to be in something. It’s at the elementary, but there’s a gap there,” he said.
Erexson is involved in his sixth production on stage. “I’ve worked with it even before I came to this school; I helped my siblings,” the sets manager said.
While saws, hammers and paint create the set on the stage, Erexson and his father also work on the props for the blood-eating Audrey II. “We’re building the plant at the house. It looks pretty good right now. We’re going to put fiberglass on it so it won’t break,” he said. “We have four plants; It grows throughout the production.”
For Erexson’s father, Bob, it’s an opportunity to share something with his family. He has worked on props and even more sets for eight years. He worked with his eldest son, Logan, now 22. He worked with his daughter Taylor, who mastered dance parts for former director Sue Nelson and who now is a sophomore in college. Now Bob works behind the scenes with Kelsey. “It’s a way I can spend time with my kids and be interested in what they’re interested in,” he said.
He has built some novel props, but he said the “Little Shop” plants are probably the strangest creations. All four stages of the plant are made from scraps of urethane foam from his work.
Stage manager Morgan Thoma will maneuver those plants about the stage.
This marks the senior’s fourth year in drama and her eighth production. She has been stage manager since her sophomore year. This musical has some special touches, she said. “We have a scene where we drop a front in in one of the scenes, a white curtain, and then we bring on the dentist chair. That’s what my crew will be doing. And we’re also moving the big plant at the end. I have three boys on my crew who are doing that. Also, during the last few minutes of the show we open up the shop and bring the plant forward.”
She said the the final night of her final show might be difficult. She loves the art, but has chosen a different path of study and career. Thoma already is attending the University of Saint Francis, studying nursing.
“I’m going to miss it a lot,” she said. “I’m going to keep it with me for a lifetime.”