On a bare wood set, just a week into the Summer Intensive Program at the Straz Center's Patel Conservatory, students already had brought Little Shop of Horrors to life.
The Doo Wop girls hit their high notes in athletic clothes and heels while the man-eating plant lurked in Mr. Mushnick's florist shop. They practice their numbers, calling out lines when needed, which isn't very often.
Seymour, played by Luis Colon, moves with grace across the stage in the same Converse shoes he has been wearing since 2006. He practices his dance moves with the help of choreographer Michelle Elkin, who traveled from Los Angeles to be a part of this production.
This isn't Elkin's first time at the Patel Conservatory. She worked as the associate choreographer to Marguerite Derricks for the musical Wonderland at the Straz Center. Although she enjoys theater, she got her start playing an orphan in the film version of the musical Annie. She currently serves as the choreographer of the ABC Family show Baby Daddy.
And now, she's guiding young thespians as they debut the famed musical this weekend at the Straz Center's TECO Theater.
For this production, Elkin said she learned from her mentors that, "Prepping is the key to success."
The students, who range from ninth grade to college students, were shy at first, and since this show doesn't call for much choreography Elkin had to utilize the ensemble.
"I am so proud of them, they really attuned themselves to the process."
Adam Wagner, 30, directs the energetic cast and crew. New to the company, he's in his 10th month. He is used to spending his summers in less humid Montana, but his goal is to open his own performing arts center so he needed experience.
He first directed and choreographed Showstoppers at the conservatory, an experience he characterized as awesome. He expects no less for this production.
"The challenge of directing is not just having a vision but realizing it from concept to product," he said, adding that his innate desire for organizational efficiency led to his career choice.
"I didn't not want to be the leader in the room," he joked.
Wagner's serious side emerges when mentoring students. Since the play touches on many topical issues from L.A. in the 1960s, like homelessness, he had to be creative in getting the students into character.
"We did interviews in our homeless characters," Wagner said. "We tap into our insecurities and talk about facts from the scripts."
They even came up with history presentations.
Wagner is excited to have Quentin Darrington, who stars on Broadway, do voice-overs.
But he'll have to battle the lead actors for the spotlight. Nicole Cannon and Luis Colon play lovebirds Audrey and Seymour.
Cannon, 17, plays damsel in distress Audrey, who really gets into character with her adorably squeaky voice. However, until sophomore year, she was too shy to use those fantastic vocals.
"I could dance in front of people since I was 2, but I was too shy to sing or talk," Cannon said.
To overcome her shyness she forced herself to enroll in voice lessons at school. It sure paid off, since Audrey is her dream role.
"Somewhere That's Green was the first song I sang in front of people and now to put on the costume and be in character with other actors, it just takes on another life, said Cannon, who attends Springstead High School in Spring Hill."
She's serious about this role, making sure she doesn't watch the movie. "I don't want to subconsciously make it her character, I want it to be organic."
The Scottish Highlander dancer dreams of being on Broadway.
Colon, 21, was found napping in the massive plant, Audrey II, after the students broke for lunch. Besides being at camp from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, Colon works at the post office from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. every night.
Seymour is the hero of the show, feeding his blood to the plant to keep the florist shop alive, while hiding his love for Audrey.
"To get into my character, I think about the worst possible situation, which I have been in," said Colon, who has starred in numerous plays at the conservatory since 2009. "Patel was the first to give me a lead. I always believed in my talent but it felt good that they recognized it."
Arielle Waldman can be reached at [email protected]