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Checking in on the new First Street Theatre in downtown Chico

Little Shop of Horrors leads Ruby Ocampo (as Audrey) and Ryan Matrai (Seymour). (Photo by Jennifer Redeker)

Fans of the movie version of Little Shop of Horrors who attend the theatrical version of the cult favorite in downtown Chico’s brand-new First Street Theatre are in for a double treat: Not only is the local version delightfully entertaining, but the newly transformed theater complex, the former home of the Blue Room Theatre, is also a marvel in itself.

That’s because, for more than a year now, members of its managing company, California Regional Theatre, have worked to transform what was a funky artsy space into what CRT’s director, Bob Maness, calls “modern elegance.” Their goal, he says, was to preserve the “historical nostalgia” of a brick-walled building constructed in 1891 while turning it into a classy, upscale venue.

They have more than succeeded.

Maness and CRT are best known for their high-quality productions of big Broadway musicals such as Les Misérables and Sweeney Todd. These productions make good use of the vast stage at the Center for the Arts at Pleasant Valley High School and have drawn large audiences.

Maness says he’s long looked for a way to create a smaller facility in the downtown area, and when the Blue Room became available—due to the longtime local theater being forced to shut its doors during the pandemic—he and members of his non-profit company’s board jumped at the opportunity.

The remodeling didn’t come cheap—somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000, Maness said, approximately half of which was provided by their landlord, the Lucena family. As owners of the building, including Collier Hardware, they were “extremely supportive” of the theater project, Maness said. They saw the benefit to the Chico community to be gained by helping CRT transform a building in some disrepair into one of enduring beauty and utility.

Chandelier lit up in the restored lobby of the newly restored First Street Theatre space. (Photo by Jennifer Redeker)

During a recent tour of the First Street facility, Maness pointed out the multiple ways it has been upgraded. “We did everything,” he said. The lobby’s high ceiling has been exposed, and attractive ceiling fans have been added. New hard flooring has been put in as well, atmospheric lighting has been added, new carpeting has been put down on the stairway, fresh paint is everywhere, and an elegant full-service bar has been set up on the west end of the building.

Most significant, perhaps, the theater room has been transformed. A state-of-the-art lighting and sound system has been installed, brand-new bright-red chairs have been added, new carpeting has been laid among the seats, new flooring has been installed and, most dramatically, the old drop ceilings have been removed to expose the grand heights of the original Masonic hall. The transformation is stunning.

Maness agrees that the Blue Room had a profound impact on local theater culture and presented many excellent works. However, its strength—a commitment to staging the kind of offbeat, edgy plays actors adore—might’ve been a weakness, too, as many of its productions lacked the popular appeal needed to draw in big audiences.

For Maness, CRT is a business as well as an outlet for the theater arts, and he approaches it accordingly. For example, he sets up focus groups to help him determine which shows to schedule. He also diversifies the annual offerings in order to attract a variety of audiences. Upcoming productions include, for example, both the ever-popular Annie (December at CUSD Center for the Arts) and Steven Sondheim’s brilliant Company (February at First Street).

In the meantime, there’s the delightful Little Shop of Horrors, which manages to make a man-eating, blood-sucking plant, a sadistic dentist, the denizens of Skid Row and several other “horrors” funny and lovable.

The play is known for its catchy music and offbeat humor, both of which are on delightful display in the FST production. Worthy of special note are Ryan Matrai as Seymour Krelborn, the nerdy flower shop assistant; Jim Sandiford as Mr. Mushnik the shop owner; Duncan Krummel as Orin the sadistic motorcycle riding dentist; and the three so-called Urchins (Grace Mgbam, Marquita Goodman and Sydney Vaughn) who provide the dance moves and backup singing that tie the play’s elements together.

There isn’t a weak performance in the bunch. If this production is a taste of what’s to come in the First Street Theatre, audiences are going to have a lot of fun enjoying quality community theater in a first-class venue.

Little Shop of Horrors shows Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. & Sunday, 2 p.m., through Oct. 31. Tickets: $31.50-$35. crtshows.com

Next up for California Regional Theatre: Annie, Dec. 3-12, at CUSD Center for the Arts; and Company, Feb. 4-20, at First Street Theatre.

First Street Theatre (Photo by Jason Cassidy)

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