Although the summer theater scene hasn’t exactly been quiet, the beginning of September marks the official start of the season. Theater companies large and small are trying out new work, new approaches to spaces, as well as returning to crowd favorites. Here is some of the exciting work that will be strutting area stages in the coming weeks.
‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’
“There’s a little bit of monster in all of us,” Yewande Odetoyinbo says with a laugh as she prepares to play the carnivorous plant Audrey II in the Lyric Stage Company’s “Little Shop of Horrors.”
The musical, the first big hit for Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin”), traced a lonely flower shop assistant whose plant becomes a blood-thirsty carnivore during a total eclipse. While the ever-growing plant brings new business to his struggling shop, its need to feed creates other complications.
Although Odetoyinbo is known for a commanding stage presence (“Breath and Imagination” at the Lyric and “Caroline or Change” with Moonbox), for the run of the show, the audience will only hear her voice in two great blues-funk numbers, “Feed Me (Git It)” and “It’s Suppertime.” During rehearsals, she says, she had the opportunity to play opposite other actors, but once the sets and props are in place, puppeteer Tim Hoover manipulates the growing and demanding plant, matching the puppet’s movements to her voice.
“Tim works really hard to fit Audrey II to me,” she says. “It’s a team effort.”
Even though she will be crammed in the band loft with the musicians during performances, Odetoyinbo says she doesn’t sit still.
“I use my body and gestures to add the emotion behind the words,” she says. “But I’m learning how to use the microphone as another acting tool.”
Although audiences won’t get to see her during the show, Odetoyinbo says she’s been talking to costume designer Marian Bertone about wearing a green sequined gown for her curtain call.
“She said, ‘We’ll see.’ ”
Lyric Stage, Boston. Aug. 30-Oct. 6. Tickets $40-$79. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
‘THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT’
At a time when falsehoods are given gravitas through repetition and facts have become fungible, “The Lifespan of a Fact” seems to have tapped into the zeitgeist.
But Sam Weisman, who is directing the first regional, post-Broadway production of the play at Gloucester Stage Company, says the story is timeless.
“It reminds me of what I encountered as a young actor and director in Hollywood,” says Weisman, who directed “George of the Jungle,” “Bye Bye Love,” and “What’s the Worst That Could Happen.” “It’s the age-old struggle between the emotions and the intellect.”
The play pits an experienced author against an eager young fact-checker assigned to resolve outstanding questions before a magazine story goes to print. Based on a true story, the play was written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. The arguments that ensue onstage are often funny and reveal as much about accepted assumptions as they do about what it means to be truthful.
Weisman says on the surface the play has two people locked in a philosophical debate, but he says “it’s surprisingly funny and quite moving.”
He’s tapped Gloucester resident and stage favorite Lindsay Crouse to play the editor who tries to keep the two men on track.
Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, Aug. 30-Sept. 22. Tickets $15-$48. 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com
Creating the right dramatic atmosphere for “Sunset Boulevard,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the 1950s film, requires a set design that brings the audience right into Norma Desmond’s home.
“We’ve created an immersive environment,” says North Shore Music Theatre resident designer Kyle Dixon. As soon as the audience steps into the theater, they will be surrounded by 100 framed images of Norma along with dozens of chandeliers.
“Everyone will know immediately they are in Norma’s world,” says Dixon.
That world is a faded mansion owned by the former silent film star, played by Tony winner Alice Ripley (“Next to Normal”). When a struggling Hollywood screenwriter stumbles in, he gets caught in Norma’s web of obsessions around an imagined comeback.
The centerpiece of Norma’s world, though, is the grand staircase in her mansion, which the North Shore production is committed to replicating despite the theater’s arena-style seating.
After the production team made the rare decision to eliminate a number of seats, Dixon designed a sweeping staircase with a light and airy feeling, which allows Norma to make her grand descent for her “final closeup” while being visible to every audience member.
“Every design involves a lot of math to make sure all the angles work and the audience can see everything,” says Dixon. “But I also work closely with the lighting designer and the painters who can add more nuance and emotion to the structures I design.”
North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, Sept. 24-Oct. 6. Tickets $61-$86. 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org
‘TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS’
Dramatizing advice letters might seem like a static exercise onstage, but Jen Wineman, who is directing “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Merrimack Repertory Theatre Sept. 11-Oct. 6, says the beauty of the play is that it’s as much about the people as it is about the advice.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is adapted by Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) from Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar,” a collection of advice columns she wrote for the literary website The Rumpus.
“In a way, the play is Sugar’s journey,” says Wineman. “Sugar was Strayed, a writer who was not a therapist but was offering her honest responses to people who were reaching out to her in pain, in disappointment, in despair.”
With Sugar/Strayed at the center, the action takes place in several rooms in her home as she responds to different letters.
“At one point, Sugar is reacting to a transgender man whose parents have disowned him,” Wineman says. “Onstage, we can have actors portraying the parents, as Sugar imagines their reaction and empathizes with the man’s pain.”
Wineman says the timing of the Dear Sugar columns coincided with Strayed writing “Wild,” a memoir of her solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail when she was coping with her own devastating loss. Sugar’s ability to help her readers “get unstuck” makes the theatrical experience uplifting and often humorous.
“I’m not a big fan of theater as therapy,” says Wineman, “but that doesn’t mean it can’t be cathartic. Sugar’s compassion and empathy bring people together, and the stage allows us to dramatize that, even if it’s only in Strayed’s imagination.”
Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, Sept. 11-Oct. 6. Tickets $24-$66. 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.