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Billy McLean is the owner of Audrey II, which will appear in “Little Shop of Horrors” at St. Dunstan’s Theatre. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

March 11. 2010 8:12AM

Neal Rubin

There may be more sympathetic characters in “Little Shop of Horrors,” but I’m rooting for the bloodthirsty houseplant. He’s been through a lot.

“Little Shop” opens Friday night at St. Dunstan’s, a community theater on the Cranbrook campus in Bloomfield Hills. It’s a unique musical in several ways, including its five-year run off-Broadway and its dependence on a series of increasingly large and ravenous puppets.

The man behind the mayhem at St. Dunstan’s is actually a boy, Billy McLean of Rochester Hills. The Avondale High junior, 17, owns and operates the puppets, known collectively as Audrey II. He knows every word of the show, he’s immensely likeable, and doctors once had him so horrendously over-medicated that he wanted to kill himself.

A fourth-grader shouldn’t have to deal with that, but Billy got through it. He has Asperger syndrome, and he gets through that, too.

He even jokes about it. When his mom, Cindy Ness, called the director of “Little Shop” to pitch Billy’s puppets and expertise, Billy was standing next to her saying, “Exploit the autism! Cry!”

So I’m rooting for the houseplant.

Severity varies

Asperger syndrome falls on the autism spectrum, and like most autism-related conditions, the severity varies widely. Billy makes eye contact, which puts him ahead of a lot of people with the disorder, but he doesn’t make friends at school, which is typical.

He fixates on his own few interests — mostly theater and Disney World — which is also typical with Asperger. But he’s generous with his time and praise, he’s funny and he’s nice to his mom, who has to park her minivan in the driveway because the most enormous of the Audrey II puppets takes up the garage.

Billy flipped for “Little Shop” the first time he saw the movie version, back when he was 7. Now he can discuss casts, favorite lines and other nuances in enough detail that he says, “I could direct this show in pitch blackness.”

Two years ago, he operated Audrey II for the Avon Players of Rochester Hills. Then he talked his mom into paying $1,000 for it, on the theory that they could refurbish and improve it and then rent it out.

Almost immediately, two high schools booked Audrey II, whose size increases throughout the show as it slurps more blood. At first, it’s a hand puppet operated from beneath a counter. By the end on Friday, Billy will crawl in from behind to work a chomping craw that’s 7 feet long, engulfs entire actors and basically looks like the shark from “Jaws” would if it were colorful and leafy.

He keeps an eye out online for productions of “Little Shop,” and he found St. Dunstan’s director Sue Mancuso as she was about to blow her entire set budget of $5,000 for the rental and transport of an Audrey II from Milwaukee. Instead, she’s paying about $1,200 and she doesn’t have to train a puppeteer.

“If he’s not doing Audrey, he’s busy helping the costume lady or with the props,” Mancuso says. “He’s been terrific.”

Go, houseplant, go.

Teenage stuff

Billy has brown eyes, a mop of brown hair and a nice smile he mutes for cameras to hide his braces. He cracks his knuckles too much and worries about the college entrance exams he took this week.

It’s typical teenage stuff, except when it isn’t. Like, his grades are plenty good enough for Wayne State, but he’s steeling himself for community college because he can’t imagine WSU will let him in.

“I have low esteem issues,” he says, no matter how supportive his mom is or how smart she was to encourage a passion that could turn into a career.

At rehearsals, he’ll scold actors who aren’t paying attention: “Your director is talking to you!” If Mancuso gives him some minor correction — turn a little more here, open the mouth a little more there — she doesn’t even bother to write it in her notes, “because I know he’ll remember.”

Billy makes fun of his piece of the show, hunkered down in a series of hot, sweaty places: “Oh, the glamour of it!” But he cares enough to hand out flyers at Avondale, and he loves theater enough that when the school did “Beauty and the Beast,” he accepted a role as a fork.

He’s a character you can pull for, so good luck, kid. Or rather, break a twig.

    Shopping for “Horrors”

    “Little Shop of Horrors” runs Friday, Saturday, and March 19-20 and 26-28 at St. Dunstan’s Theatre, 400 Lone Pine Road, Bloomfield Hills.
    Tickets cost $20, or $18 for students and seniors. Visit www.stdunstanstheatre.com or call (248) 737-3587.

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