The American Theatre Critics Association (of which I am a member) promotes theater as a resource to communities throughout the country. EPIC Players takes this goal a step further by opening the craft to an underserved company of performers. An acronym for Empower, Perform, Include and Create, this talented troupe is neuro-diverse: composed of actors over the age of 16 who are on the spectrum of autism. Casting calls are open, though priority is given to company members. Rehearsals are conducted over an extended period, which allows the cast and crew to co-create a particularly supportive environment. The results are not only empowering for the artists, but expansive for the audience as well.
With its sprawling cast and blended genre of horror and comedy, Little Shop of Horrors is a masterful choice for EPIC’s current season. The story follows Seymour Krelborn and Audrey, two fragile outsiders working in a skid row flower shop, and presents them with wit and affection. The pair is brought together by a demanding plant named the Audrey II, who has troubling intentions. The music is by Alan Menken with lyrics and a book by Howard Ashman, the team behind Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. While the work can be viewed as a piece of social commentary, it is unquestionably a wildly good time.
Equity member Ben Rosloff performs the underestimated Seymour with the gentleness this lead role requires. Slipping into Audrey’s leopard prints is Nicole D’Angelo, who replicates Ellen Green’s ultra-high-pitched speaking voice and sweet singing style. Her sadistic boyfriend is played with glee and a touch of menace by Dante Jayce, who also makes the most hysterical entrance. Michael Buckhout takes on flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik with appropriate slapstick asides. In many productions, the Audrey II is represented by a series of ever-larger puppets. Here, a booming Nick Moscato appears to be having a blast portraying the full grown plant, which heightens the character’s ability to engage. The chorus of street urchins has been expanded to five expressive and funny singer/dancers (Imani Youngblood, Justin Phillips, Aria Renee Curameng, Melissa Jennifer Gonzalez and Kathryn Cristofano) who enliven every moment they are on stage. Music is performed by a live four piece band under the direction of keyboardist Jonathan Ivie. Whitney Blythe, Gianluca Cirafici, Brianna Freeman, Jessy Leppert, Samantha Elisofon, Nick Amodio, Gideon Piankor, and Eric Zimmer are the supporting players with Andrew Kader, Kim Carter, Meggan Dodd, and Amaker Smith making up the ensemble.
The performance I attended was a final dress rehearsal and there were a few timing and technical issues. Even with those difficulties, the production sparkled with imagination. Directed by EPIC’s Executive Artistic Director Aubrie Therrien with assistance from Max Baudisch and Zach Lichterman, the staging makes fabulous use of the Black Box space. Aisles and overhead platforms are filled with residents of the downtown streets and Audrey II’s many admirers. You might even be offered a bag of “cocaine” or gifted with an Audrey II plant clipping. Clever costumes by Cat Fisher include Audrey II’s enticingly and colorful garb. The effective set by Tim Catlett is topped with projection screens that enhance the play with classic horror clips and horticulture documentaries.
This production of Little Shop of Horrors radiates joy from its very roots, serving to shatter any preconceived notions held by uninitiated theater-goers. Noise canceling headphones are available for sensitive audience members, and anyone needing a break is invited to decompress in the lobby. Runtime is 94 minutes with one 10 minute intermission. It plays through Sunday, June 16 in the Black Box Theater at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street. Tickets are $27-$57 and can be purchased at https://ci.ovationtix.com/34409/production/1007814?performanceId=10390542. EPIC — a 501c3 non-profit — holds auditions year round and provides professional development classes and workshops free of charge to all who are accepted. You can also support their work by visiting https://www.epicplayersnyc.org/support.