‘Little Shop of Horrors’ grows big and strong at Ford’s Theatre

Pulling inspiration from Motown and doo-wop, virtually every song is catchy or memorable, and virtually every number is show-stopping.

Chani Wereley doesn’t need to end up front and center on stage in order to claim her big solo number as her own. By halfway through “Somewhere That’s Green,” she already has. And yet, she still takes it up another notch, delivering a strong vocal performance while digging deeper into the song’s emotion.

Alone at centerstage, Wereley’s Audrey has pulled off an impressive feat, grounding a song that is essentially a satire of the American Dream firmly in reality. It’s a strong creative choice to do so, and makes for a stirring moment.

Derrick D. Truby Jr. (Seymour) and Chani Wereley (Audrey) in the 2024 Ford’s Theatre production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

That is, at least in a vacuum. In the context of this production of Little Shop of Horrors, now performing at Ford’s Theatre through May 18, the groundedness of “Somewhere That’s Green” instead highlights the tonally disjointed and inconsistent aspects of what is overall a strong production.

Little Shop has by now become a staple of American theater. The 1982 musical, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, blends comedy, horror, satire, and allegory to tell the story of Seymour Krelborn, a flower shop worker in an urban skid row in 1960 who one day buys a “strange and interesting” plant similar to a venus fly-trap.

The plant, named Audrey II after Seymour’s co-worker and secret love, appears to bring Seymour everything he’s wanted. Business at the flower shop booms. His local fame grows. He and Audrey grow closer. All the plant asks for — and yes, the plant does eventually literally ask — is for some human blood. A small price to pay for fortune and fame, right?

Directed by Kevin S. McAllister, Ford’s Theatre’s production is a largely faithful rendition of Little Shop, situating itself in the mold of how the show is traditionally produced. That’s true in everything from the staging to the puppetry designs for Audrey II to the aesthetic of skid row.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with a faithful rendition of Little Shop, which has some incredibly strong material to work with. Pulling inspiration from Motown and doo-wop, virtually every song in this musical is at least either catchy or memorable, if not both. It helps, too, that the campy dialogue is often hilarious.

On both accounts, the production at Ford’s Theatre is well-executed. McAllister and the show’s cast have made some clever choices to add even more comedy to what is already written in the script. And despite some sound mixing issues — that admittedly may just have been a result of where I was seated — virtually every number in this production is show-stopping.

That includes “Downtown (Skid Row),” which introduces the cast and somehow sounds much fuller than the show’s relatively small cast and band would suggest is possible. Meanwhile, the trio of Crystal, Chiffon, and Ronnette — played by Kanysha Williams, Nia Savoy-Dock, and Kaiyla Gross, respectively — practically steal the show with all of their featured numbers, including the titular opening number, as they serve as the show’s quasi-narrators.

Derrick D. Truby Jr. (Seymour) with Nia Savoy-Dock (Chiffon), Kaiyla Gross (Ronnette), and Kanysha Williams (Crystal) in the 2024 Ford’s Theatre production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

It’s in the production’s acting choices that this production seems more disjointed, not because any one actor is weaker than the others, but because the four lead cast members seem to be on different pages regarding how much to play up Little Shop’s campy dialogue. Derrick D. Truby Jr.’s Seymour and Wereley’s Audrey feel similarly grounded, while Lawrence Redmond plays the flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik as more of a caricature.

That difference may not have been noticeable, but then Joe Mallon arrives as Orin, a dentist and Audrey’s abusive boyfriend. Mallon is funny in an absurd role, but he is also larger-than-life. Coming after the preceding scenes, when so little of the show’s camp had been comparatively played up, Orin feels alien to the production.

The disparate parts don’t click together until near the end of the first act, when Audrey II is introduced as a character in its own right — voiced by an equally monstrous and alluring Tobias A. Young — in the song “Feed Me (Git It).”

There, the production’s relative realism  — as realist as a musical about a talking carnivorous plant can be — turns to a heightened reality. The skid row scenery (designed by Paige Hathaway) is washed in vivid reds, greens, and yellows (lighting design by Max Doolittle). The girl group trio emerge in chic and fanciful 1960s costumes (designed by Alejo Vietti). With a new, surrealistic aesthetic and tone for the remainder of the act, nothing feels out of place anymore.

The second act is equally inconsistent, but it similarly ends in a dreamlike state. As a result, the impression at the end of this production of Little Shop is admittedly not of disjointedness but of the production’s strengths — the heightened emotions, the show-stopping spectacle, the critique of capitalism.

After all, Little Shop of Horrors may be a horror and a comedy and a satire, but it is also a tragedy. Despite some flaws, the production at Ford’s Theatre effectively conveys all of that.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

Little Shop of Horrors plays through May 18, 2024, at Ford’s Theatre, 514 10th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are on sale online and range from $33 to $95. Discounts are available for groups, senior citizens, military personnel, and those younger than 40. For more information, call (202) 347-4833 or (888) 616-0270 (toll-free).

The cast, creative team, and band credits are here, and a digital program is downloadable here.

Recommended for ages 8 and older.

Ford’s accessibility offerings (audio-described, ASL-interpreted, sensory-friendly) include closed captioning via the GalaPro App.

COVID Safety: Face masks are optional.

Little Shop of Horrors
Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Music by Alan Menken; Music Direction by William Yanesh; Choreographed by Ashleigh King; Directed by Kevin S. McAllister

Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway; Costume Design by Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design by Max Doolittle; Sound Design by David Budries; Hair and Make-up Design by Danna Rosedahl; Dialects and Voice Direction by Rachel Hirshorn-Johnston; Production Stage Managed by Craig A. Horness; Assistant Stage Managed by Taryn Friend


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