RCHS takes on a big job with ‘Little Shop’

On television, High School Musicals seem so completely effortless. Characters go about their lives and frequently break into perfectly choreographed song that ideally expresses the moment. Russell Paulette, the RCHS drama teacher, would guffaw at such romanticized notions of easily producing those “perfect” snapshots of time.

RCHS students Austen Cloud and Jessica Boutte in a November 2009 Drama Club production. Photo by Barbara Wheatley.

This May 7 and 8, Paulette and some incredibly talented students will present the award-winning musical “Little Shop of Horrors” to the Rappahannock community. Paulette expects this “perfect Mother’s Day gift” of a wonderfully choreographed musical will in no way be an effortless endeavor.

Paulette is busily about the business of pre-production planning, and he has a vision for this play.

“A musical is a bigger production than a standard play. You can’t have the mentality of ‘just go to the barn and put on a show.’ You have to know every detail way in advance: the resources needed, the coordination of various departments. The collaborative effort is unprecedented” at RCHS, he says.

Yes, producing at musical at Rapphannock County High School is a distinctly uncommon event all by itself. But producing said musical with the invited collaboration of several departments is wholly unique. The RCHS band and chorus will be an integral part of the show. Add to that the art department, industrial arts, a business class that produces professional-quality publishing, the Farm-to-Table program and the horticulture class, and it’s an exquisite community effort whose head choreographer is Paulette.

Paulette came to RCHS as an English teacher in 2008. Immediately he involved himself in department-related extracurriculars: resurrecting the Drama Club and taking on the production of a full-length play, “The Disappearance of Daniel Hand” by Dan O’Brian. Paulette’s enthusiasm in the classroom overflowed onto the stage.

Now, Paulette’s passion for the theater is evident again. His confidence in the talent and dedication of the RCHS students is one factor that led him to take on the challenge of producing a full-length musical. His choice of musical is one more ingredient that makes the upcoming show something special.

“Little Shop of Horrors” is a rock-and-roll musical that features a down-and-out flower shop employee who raises an exotic plant that feeds on human blood. The play first gained widespread popularity in 1982 with its off-Broadway production and its rollicking soundtrack.

The pubic response fueled the second film version of the story (the first was in 1960) that debuted in 1986 with Rick Moranis, Steve Martin and Bill Murray. It is a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the 1950s science fiction movies that requires somewhat elaborate props and definitive actors/actresses who are doubly talented in acting and vocals.

What would motivate a high school drama coach to take on such a production? “I enjoy the form of the musical and really enjoy some that are off the beaten path,” says Paulette. “Those tend to be the ones that appeal to the students as well. But, I didn’t immediately choose Little Shop.”

In the mid-production stage of the May 2009 RCHS presentation of “Daniel Hand,” the cast and crew asked Paulette what play they were going to tackle the following season. In an extemporaneous moment, he mentioned “Little Shop.” The students liked the idea, and it just became “what we are doing next.” Of course, he says, that decision solidified “absent of the idea of building a giant man-eating plant.”

Beyond the construction of the man-eater, Paulette’s biggest challenge is budgetary. “Funding rights for a musical are exponentially more than regular plays. The up-front costs are high.” His excitement for the project is not, however, diminished by any of the obstacles. On the contrary, he is propelled by the anticipation of overcoming each of them.

The fuel for that propellant is the RCHS student community. “Last year, I called our first Drama Club meeting. The response was huge! They came with the attitude of ‘set us in motion and we will do it.’ My goal now is to cultivate a culture that invites underclass students to try out and be a part, with the idea that they will grow into bigger roles as upperclassmen.”

Even more than the inviting atmosphere of the program, Paulette’s vision is “to create a sustained momentum that drives the program from year to year to the point where the program, in effect, could function without me. A program that is student-driven . . . self-sustaining.”

In May of 2010, the high bar that Paulette raised for the students who successfully produced “Daniel Hand” in 2009 will be raised, and there is no doubt that the cast and crew of “Little Shop of Horrors” will bound over the obstacle and seek subsequent challenges.