A Chat with Little Shop of Horrors’ Christopher Bloch and Evan Casey
Audiences are loving Ford’s Theatre’s botanically hysterical production of Little Shop of Horrors, with its extremely blood-thirsty and kvetchy plant, so I asked actors Christopher Bloch and Evan Casey to enlighten us about their roles (in Evan’s case – many roles), and working with the cast and director Coy Middlebrook.
Joel: What is Little Shop of Horrors about?
Chris: It’s a morality play about the consequences of greed and ambition couched in the environment of a very absurd ‘60s sci-fi story – Seymour Krelborn finds an unusual plant that leads to fame and fortune, but he has to make some very difficult decisions along the way that compromise his integrity.
Evan: The story of Little Shop of Horrors is probably best explained in the first two musical numbers of the show. The prologue number (and title song) “Little Shop of Horrors”, sung by the Urchins (the narrators in and out of the story), tells the audience that they are in store for a crazy show full of energy, excitement, comedy, and yes, horror, basically all of the key elements one would find in the classic B-movie genre of the 60s that this musical is paying homage to.
The second song gets to the true heart of the story and the journey of the key characters. “Downtown (Skid Row)” tells us of Seymour, Audrey, and Mr. Mushnik, desperately struggling to overcome their difficult stations and meager livings in life, working in a flower shop in urban Skid Row, particularly for the young Seymour and Audrey, who want so badly to escape from their life to make something of themselves and live their dreams. Ultimately, this is what the musical will be about, as Seymour, in an effort to achieve his dream of a life with Audrey, gives into the desires of his man-eating plant, bringing him wealth and fame, as well as a host of other consequences that he didn’t bargain for!
Joel: So tell us about your characters.
Chris: I play Mr. Mushnik, the shop owner who takes Seymour in as a young boy, and enjoys the fruits of Seymour’s discovery. The character is familiar, in terms of many of my relatives being peers of this guy–the social and cultural references are part of my growing up, but there is also a side to Mushnik that gets sidetracked by the fame and fortune as well, the ambition/greed driving him to make decisions that are based more by money than compassion.
Evan: I guess the easiest way we have found to describe it is that I play “Orin” (the Dentist) and “Everybody else!” Orin is the biggest character, and the one who has the largest impact on the story, but I also play several other smaller parts that contribute to the plot… I like playing every single one. How could you not?! It is a rare opportunity to wear so many hats (literally!) in one show, particularly when each character has his (or her) own distinct persona and influence on the story. I also enjoy playing any character that is just the slightest bit “off” or “out of joint” with our everyday reality, and this is definitely a collection of those kinds of characters!
Joel: Why did you want to play these roles?
Chris: This character allowed me a little more discovery than some others that I was considering at the time. Sometimes the choices I make are decided by how far I can dig into a character. The research or prep work is the most interesting to me, since it’s the time when you launch yourself into a different perspective. There is a very silly quality to the musical, but the process is still the same for me.
Evan: It is such an outstanding and enjoyable challenge. To have the opportunity to create so many different characters and bring them to life every night is a thrill and a joy. The rehearsal process often felt like I was back in acting class, trying and testing any and all ways to make characters unique and distinct: voice, posture, emotional need, tempo, etc.
As for “Orin,” he is definitely an iconic character in the American Musical Theatre that people remember, so anytime you get to tackle a role like that and try to put your own stamp it, it is an exciting challenge.
Joel: In the cast are actors you have worked with before at Signature Theatre and other theatres in the area. Tell us about them.
Chris: I’ve worked with Felicia Curry and Eleasha Gamble most recently in A Christmas Carol at Ford’s and Les Miz at Signature (Last year, Chris won a Helen Hayes Award playing the nasty Thenardier), with Kara-Tameika Watkins in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Signature in ’03, and with Evan Casey in Meet John Doe and Shenandoah at Ford’s Theatre and Urinetown at Signature Theatre. The longer I live here, the more often I get to work with the same folks, and you develop shorthand, and the comfort level of working together. It’s great to walk into the rehearsal room, that first day in particular, and feel the warmth of friendly, familiar faces as you start the journey together.
Evan: I have also worked with Felicia Curry, Eleasha Gamble, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and with Chris Bloch in a variety of shows and theatres in the area. All of them are extremely talented performers and a pleasure to work with. One of the highlights of being an actor in the DC community is that you continue to see so many of the same friendly faces in the shows you do. This community is so tight-knit and supportive of each other, and being part of it really does feel like being part of a family. I cannot tell you the number of truly good friends I have made from working in this area, and these four wonderful actors are certainly part of that group.
Joel: Jenna Coker-Jones and Christopher Jones play Audrey and Seymour. Have you worked with them before?
Chris: It is the first time working with both of them, but they both slid into the rhythm of the group immediately. It’s not necessarily easy to jump into a group of actors that have worked a lot together, when you are coming into a new town. It’s fun to watch how they work together, since they are married, and how they brought Seymour and Audrey to life, with a couple of great voices, pushing the wacky humor of the show and a lot of heart driving it all.
Evan: This is also the first time I have worked with both of them and I am already looking forward to future opportunities with them! Occasionally, it can take a bit of time for a group of cast members to get comfortable with each other in the rehearsal environment; not so with these two, as they made friends with everyone in the room in about five minutes on day one of rehearsal! They are both wonderful people, filled with humor and generosity of spirit, and such a pleasure to have as part of the cast.
As for their turns as Audrey and Seymour, I think their performances speak for themselves. I think they are both brilliant in their roles, bringing something new and fresh to these iconic characters comically, truthfully, and musically, and delivering the goods night after night.
Joel: How would you describe director Coy Middlebrook’s style and vision for the show?
Chris: The vision and look of the show is one of the strongest components of this production, I think. The comic book sci-fi feel is at the root of it, and Coy tried to let us go with the playing of the piece, but still trying to keep it based in emotional truth. Having fun with the material, but not overtly commenting on it – which makes for a fun journey, but still keeps an emotional connection to the play for the audience and us.
Evan: I think Coy is a tremendously talented and creative artist, and a wonderful person in and out of the rehearsal room. We have been friends since we worked together on Shenandoah (Coy was Assistant Director) several years ago at Ford’s, and he has helped me grow a lot as an artist. His style of direction is very collaborative, which is extremely important in such a tightly wound machine of a show, with such a hard-working ensemble. He sets the tone for a relaxed and open rehearsal environment, where we are encouraged to take risks and explore. He allowed me the freedom to play, explore, and discover with all of my different characters, until we landed on what ultimately worked.
Joel: There are hundreds of productions of Little Shop being produced all around this country as I am typing this question. Why do you think it’s still so popular?
Chris: It’s a fun, silly romp with great music, and it’s a small cast musical!
Evan: Stephen Sondheim once said – and I am paraphrasing here – “a good musical tells you what you are about to see, then shows it you, then tells you why you saw it”. If there is a show that better adheres to Sondheim’s “good musical” formula, it would be pretty hard to find. Some may do it as well, but few do it better, and even fewer do it with as much entertainment value. It is a night at the theatre everyone enjoys from start to finish.
Joel: There are so many great songs in the show, but your big numbers are “Mushnik and Son” and “Now (It’s just the gas).” Set them up for us.
Chris: For “Mushnik and Son,” Mushnik has to make a decision to hang on to his success: How does he keep Seymour (and the plant) around, so he doesn’t lose everything? I think it’s one of those moments where the stakes are high for a character, and the audience is very interested in seeing the result of a rather bold, comical attempt to control fate. In this case, offering adoption to Seymour so Mushnik won’t lose a truckload of cash!
Evan: “Now (It’s Just the Gas)” is a pivotal moment in the show where Seymour is wrestling with the decision of whether or not to kill Orin, and all the benefits and consequences either choice will bring. Meanwhile, Orin, insanely excited with having another patient in his “torture chamber” of dentistry, puts on his special gas mask for that extra “oomph” of enjoyment for what he is about to put Seymour through. When his mask gets stuck and cannot be removed, suddenly the stakes get a whole lot higher for both characters!
Joel: Evan – Do you like going to the dentist, and have you ever had an Orin-type dental experience?
Evan: I don’t think I know of anyone who actually likes going to the dentist! I will say that I don’t think I HATE the dentist as much as other people do, but then again, I have been pretty lucky thus far in life in not needing too much crazy dental surgery (*knocking on all visible wood*). I think if Orin were my dentist I would leave the waiting room as soon as I heard the first scream. To be honest, I am not sure how Orin gets all his clients because I have no idea who would be recommending him!
Joel: What’s it feel like to be eaten by Audrey II, and play second fiddle to a huge man-eating plant?
Chris: So long as it’s relatively painless, I’ll play any part in the orchestra to keep Audrey happy. Besides, I like gardening!
Joel: What challenges do you face everyday performing on Court Watson’s set?
Chris: It gets back to the vision of the show that Court Watson, Christopher Youstra (Music Director) and Wade Laboissonniere (Costumes) brought to the show with Coy Middlebrook (Director). It took a while for us to get used to the turntables, the lights, and the ins and outs of the set. It’s one of the more complicated techs I’ve been involved with, but it created a wonderful playground for us.
Evan: I think Court did a masterful job with this set design. The audience is wowed (and justifiably so) by all of the big elements – the multiple revolves, the fantastic look of Mushnik’s shop and the Skid Row street – but Court also has hundreds of tiny detailed touches that really complete the picture, and make the set spring to life for us on-stage as well. Little things like the period fan near Mushnik’s door, the cheap looking linoleum covering the shop floor, various white splotches on the walls and steps of Skid Row that look like pigeon droppings (a frequent find in any urban environment!). It’s these kinds of elements that might not be easily noticed, but really make the show come to life for the audience. As for us on-stage, these touches go from making it a “set,” to making it a true living environment for our show.
With so many moving parts and working elements, it definitely presents its share of challenges, but thankfully we have had a lot of reps getting comfortable with how the show works on the set and what we have to do on a nightly basis to make this show tick. It requires you to be extra “present” on-stage to make sure you are being safe with revolves moving, and doors opening and closing, and set pieces moving in and out, but thankfully our great stage manager Craig Horness, and our tireless backstage crew really keep this show running smoothly. There is no way we could do this show without them!
Joel: What is your favorite scene and song to watch when you are not on the stage?
Chris: There is a moment when the three urchins are listening to Audrey’s dream of “Somewhere That’s Green,” and the simple act of them listening, and revealing their vulnerable side underneath the tough street exterior is a favorite of mine. (I’ve always loved that stuff going on in the background.)
Evan: I would have to say “Suddenly Seymour,” if for no other reason than it’s one of the few times when I am not changing costumes, or wigs, or quickly preparing for something else! But in truth, I would name it anyway because it is probably THE song that people remember most from this show – a power ballad that even non-theatre lovers know and love – and Chris and Jenna’s rendition of it is beautifully sung and acted. It is a joy to listen to and watch them rediscover that love night after night, a perfect melding of actor and character.
Joel: What’s next for you after this production closes?
Chris: I’m slated to do Chess at Signature and A Christmas Carol at Ford’s.
Evan: I will go back into the Capitol Steps. I will also be doing some teaching with Adventure Theatre’s Summer Workshops over the summer, and doing a reading of Tamar in Signature Theatre’s 21/24 summer workshop for new musicals in its American Musical Voices Project.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take away with them when they leave Ford’s Theatre’s production of Little Shop of Horrors?
Chris: Some serious toe tapping and silly giggles….
Evan: I think Paul Tetreault (Director of Ford’s Theatre Society) summed it up best on our very first rehearsal day (which was in the midst of our double-whopping of massive February snowstorms), when he said that by the time Little Shop of Horrors opens, the DC audiences will be ready for spring, and it will be our job to usher it in. I think that’s what I want audiences leaving with, that refreshed and rejuvenated “spring” feeling, soaking up the energy we put out on-stage, and leaving the theatre fully satiated on comedy, emotion, music, and entertainment!
Little Shop of Horrors plays through May 22nd at Ford’s Theatre – 511 Tenth Street in Washington, DC. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here: