Tasty ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ at Ford’s

The main human characters in the current Ford’s Theatre production of the musical “Little Shop of Horrors” — the real star being a flesh-and-blood-eating plant — are not the four-eyed nebbish and the dumb blonde of Frank Oz’s film adaptation.

With Rick Moranis as the hapless Seymour and Ellen Greene as Audrey, a five-and-dime Marilyn Monroe, the 1986 film became a cult classic, given extra zip by John Candy, Steve Martin and Bill Murray.

At Ford’s, the two assistants Mushnik bosses around in his faded flower shop are played by Derrick D. Truby Jr. — klutzy, yes, but no nebbish — and Chani Wereley — far from dumb (and not a blonde). Older than Moranis and Greene seemed on the big screen, they interact less comically but more movingly.

As “Little Shop” cultists know, after test-screening audiences balked, the film’s original bleak outcome, faithful to the stage musical, was replaced with an upbeat ending (fewer people are eaten). If you’ve only seen the film, come prepared.

(I suppose fans of “Sweeney Todd,” which opened on Broadway in 1979, three years before “Little Shop” premiered at the 98-seat WPA Theatre in the Flatiron District, were in the mood for another gruesome musical comedy. But did they laugh at the domestic abuse, e.g., Audrey’s black eye and arm in a sling?)

The Ford’s audience the night I was there didn’t spare the cheers and applause; I’m guessing that many of them had been in high school or college productions.

Other differences from the Frank Oz film: a prettified “Skid Row” setting, based on the work of German artist Gerd Winner and the 1990 “Dick Tracy” film, according to designer Paige Hathaway; a fairly gross feeding sequence; and no drawn-out dentist’s-chair scene (unforgettably acted by Martin and Murray).

The dental office tour de force at Ford’s (spoiler) is sadistic doc Orin, trapped in his bubble helmet, having a nitrous oxide laughing fit. Besides playing Orin, modern-day vaudevillian Joe Mallon shows up in cameo after cameo. The show’s costumes, including the Flash Gordon helmet, were designed by Alejo Vietti.

A note in the online program book by José Carrasquillo, director of artistic programming, traces the show’s evolution from H. G. Wells’s “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” through two later short stories to Roger Corman’s black-and-white B movie of 1960. Set in Los Angeles, Charles B. Griffith’s bizarre and jokey screenplay spoofs “Dragnet.” Among other unknowns, a 20-something Jack Nicholson was cast as a masochistic dental patient.

Lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken — later the Disney songwriting team behind “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast” — inexplicably decided that what Corman and Griffith’s clunky noir comedy needed to win over an early 1980s Off-Off-Broadway audience was … Motown.

As backup singers for their R&B-flavored, street corner show tunes, the pair dreamed up a girl group that not only harmonizes but dances and interacts with the main characters. Rough around the edges and smooth as silk, Kaiyla Gross, Nia Savoy-Dock and Kanysha Williams pop up as Ronnette, Chiffon and Crystal in various matching outfits, sometimes on a balcony. The trio is a highlight of the Ford’s production, choreographed by Ashleigh King.

The show’s music is catchy if mostly, by definition, derivative (a nicer term: retro). The “Mushnik and Son” number, performed by Truby and Lawrence Redmond — as the shop owner, newly fond of his employee who found a celebrity plant — is entertainingly staged as a tango. Most memorable are the big weeper, “Somewhere That’s Green,” by the excellent Wereley, and the anthem “Suddenly Seymour,” which she sings with Truby (both are making their Ford’s debut).

Led by William Yanesh, the tight five-piece pit band — two keyboards, guitar, bass and drums — packed a wallop.

What about the ravenous talking plant from outer space, you ask? Audrey II, as it is known, appears as four different puppets (S, M, L and XL, toothy and warty), created by Monkey Boy Productions and manipulated by Dance Captain Jay Frisby and Fight Captain Ryan Sellers. Heartily voiced by Tobias A. Young, it brought to mind a riled-up Mr. T (“And we ain’t talkin’ about George Washington Carver!”).

Long associated with Ford’s Theatre, the show’s director, Kevin McAllister, is artistic director of Baltimore-based ArtsCentric, a color-conscious performing arts organization founded in 2003 by Morgan State University alumni. He and the Ford’s team have delivered a tasty “Little Shop.”


“Little Shop of Horrors”
Through May 18
Ford’s Theatre
511 10th St. NW



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