Lean, mean, green queen of the scene

The Baltimore Sun

While singers warmed up their voices and crew members prepared props and wigs, Toby's Dinner Theatre director Toby Orenstein addressed a 6-foot-tall foam-and-fabric plant with pointed teeth.

"How are you doing in there?" she called.

"It's a whole different feel," replied Michael Lehan, his sneakers sticking out from the newly repaired plant head as he worked its jaws up and down and swiveled its head.

Lehan, of Glenelg, and Adam Grabau of Columbia share the role of Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, which runs through Aug. 19 at the Columbia theater. For several weeks, the two have been figuring out how to make three puppets of varying sizes talk, sing and emote believably as a rapidly growing, R&B-singing;, flesh-eating plant from outer space.

A fourth puppet is manipulated by actor David James as his character, Seymour, carries it around the stage.

Genevieve Williams of Washington supplies the voice and much of the attitude for Audrey II, but Grabau said his is "still a pretty weighty job because you have to make it as convincing as you can. You have to do your best to sell the audience that this thing is alive and it's singing and eating people."

One key is to be able to anticipate what the vocalist is doing, Lehan said. "It's totally a collaborative thing. I have to listen to her."

Williams said it was "a fun experience" to see how the two men interpreted her style and her expressions once they got inside the plants. But she also learned what things - such as the speed and the enunciation - she needed to adjust to make the collaboration work.

Although she does not get to appear onstage until the curtain call, she said, "I feel like I'm giving a lot through my vocal expression. I think we're a good team."

She added: "There is actually a kind of liberty in that anonymity. It's an opportunity to be the worst villain I can be because nobody can see me."

Lehan said he needed extra help, since he cannot see very much from inside the padded heads.

"I was constantly asking the actors, 'Does this make sense to you? ... Is this angry enough?' " he said. "I feel angry on the inside, but I am totally reliant on the actors and director and Genevieve herself to give feedback."

Audrey II has required technical tweaking as well. The puppets, purchased from another theater company, were "in a serious state of disrepair," said Grabau, who did much of the refurbishing.

Among his tasks was to replace a metal frame in the largest puppet with a plastic one. He said: "It used to weigh about 140 pounds; now it is about 70."

At dress rehearsal, Orenstein worked with the cast to get the jaw to align properly, the green felt-covered roots to lie correctly and the actors to move smoothly into the jaws and "disappear."

This past week, Lehan did all of the shows as Audrey II while Grabau was performing as the understudy for the character of the dentist. Lehan said things fell into place nicely.

In rehearsal, "I really had to think everything through," he said. "Now I'm at the point I'm feeling it more like an actor as opposed to a mechanical puppet. I speak the words so I can feel my mouth open up how the puppet is supposed to open up. ... It's more second nature for me."

In addition to an acting challenge, Lehan and Grabau agree that the role is a physical feat.

"To start with, is the slight claustrophobia, because it's pretty tight in there," said Grabau, 26, who has appeared in nine shows at Toby's and worked in technical roles on about 30.

"It gets very warm very quickly," he said. "And the last [puppet] is a marathon. You sit in there for about 45 minutes."

He added: "The most difficult part is eating people. You have to be concerned about the actor's safety as you are doing it. [The puppet] does have a significant amount of weight to it. You don't want to come down too hard on them."

Lehan, 51, played the puppet manipulator role about 20 years ago at Olney Theatre Center and shortly after that at Toby's when the two theaters collaborated to buy the puppets.

He said he started getting into shape at the beginning of the year, but "I just don't rebound like I did 20 years ago."

Lehan has done a few smaller roles help out at Toby's over the years, but he said this is his first major commitment to a show after more than a decade during which he focused on his family and his job as director of purchasing at the Capital Hilton in Washington.

"It's just a toe-tapper," he said. "It's fun. The music is exciting. And the people at Toby's are great people. They're great to be around. It's not a job."


Toby's Dinner Theatre: www.tobysdinnertheatre.com, or 410-730-8311.

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