There’s a pall of delicious irony lingering over Constellation’s Little Shop of Horrors, the now-classic musical tale of a weirdo named Seymour from Skid Row who finds an extra-terrestrial plant that brings him (and the flower shop where he works) fame but must be fed in blood, now playing at Source on 14th Street NW.
If you’re relatively new to town, you might not know that 14th Street used to be a skid row of sorts (well, more of a red light district), whereas now it is a hopping and hip spot for DC night life. The irony deepens when you consider that, like the little florist where Seymour works, the Source is often credited as a catalyst for the turnaround of the area with a cost, not of blood, but of acquiescence to the ever-present local specter of gentrification.
The metaphor extends well to Constellation itself, who made a change to their programming a few years ago to accommodate its ever-more-Millenial neighborhood by incorporating at least one risqué but popular musical into each of their seasons (my interview with Artistic Director Allison Stockman here). By bringing something surprising and somewhat alien to their seasons, Constellation took off in popularity and accolades, though perhaps not at a price so great as human flesh or neighborhood transformation.
In fact, Constellation has proven quite comfortable and adept at bringing off-kilter musical theater to the more than cozy Source space, and Little Shop of Horrors is no exception. Bouyed by design that puts the fun in funky and some standout performances, this production satisfies and, in places, wows as the cast and creative team take on difficult challenges with aplomb and ingenuity.
The production’s greatest challenge—creating and utilizing creatively produced puppets to represent the plant (named Audrey II)— produce some of the greatest results. Matthew McGee, local actor and puppeteer extraordinaire has detailed some of his work in this amazing interview with DCTS, but it is one thing to read about his magic and another to see it.
McGee’s puppets emphasize hidden puppeteers, that is, you have to look carefully and concentrate to determine how exactly each puppet is being manipulated. If you simply take in the spectacle, you probably won’t notice some of his delightful tricks, like creating a fake arm around a planter to let Audrey II dance in a peppy group number in Act I or a contraption to let the largest version of the plant shimmy with the help of the entire body of puppeteer Rj Pavel. The puppets lose a little vivacity as Audrey II gets larger and larger, but what they lose in dynamism they gain in striking visual design.
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That doesn’t take away from the human performers though. Talent is spread widely throughout the cast, with Christian Montgomery’s workmanlike Seymour acting as a solid pillar for other actors to make some bold choices. Scott Ward Abernathy as the villainous, sadistic, and misogynist Dentist boyfriend of Seymour’s crush is utterly hateable in all the best and most disturbing ways. The trio of singers that form the chorus further bolster the show. In that group, Alana S. Thomas knows how to dance with her body and her face, throwing delightful looks all the way to the back of the tiny space, and Chani Wereley has a voice and a presence that keeps you from ever taking your eyes and ears off of her. For the Joseph Roach fans out here, I can definitively say that Wereley has It.
But the absolute showpiece performance in this Little Shop comes from Teresa Quigley Danskey, who plays Audrey, the sweet and abused customer service specialist at the florist shop. Her pitch perfect emoting takes the wheel of the production, making the show less about Seymour’s ambitious botany and more about her survival in an abusive relationship, her pathos-inducing low standards, and her tragic end.
She makes the most of her every moment on stage, even in seemingly minor bits, like in the ending (that will be a twist if you are only familiar with the 1986 film). But her singing is what really puts her over the top. Audrey is written in a way that could encourage the actor to take either breathy or grating tones in her vocal choices, but Quigley Danskey doesn’t fall into either of those traps. She plays Audrey fairly straight, eliciting a version of “Somewhere That’s Green” that actually breaks hearts, instead of being a pastiche on songs that try to. Her part in “Suddenly Seymour” soars in a way that takes the show home with you— easy to hum and hard to sing.
Little Shop of Horrors closes November 24, 2019. Details and tickets
Just as memorable for me, especially as a theatermaker myself, is the design. A layperson may not notice these things, but Constellation’s creative team, led by director Nick Martin, has taken on some maddening challenges. Most noticeable is the “curtain” that runs across the center of the stage, separating the interior of the florist from the skid row outdoors. Made of 3 sets of actual horizontal slat blinds, the “curtain” raises and lowers on a track with a smoothness that’s fascinating to watch on its own. My production mind is terrified for them, since blinds are notoriously finicky and breakable on stage (what with the movement happening all around them and the wear of constant use). But these blinds, brought in by Constellation mainstay and scenic designer A.J. Guban, showed a technical prowess and bravery unmatched by many other local small theaters.
The small space with this giant fixture made the lighting designer’s (Sarah Tundermann) job remarkably difficult, but she executed impeccably. Source only has so much space “up in the air” for lights to be hung, and with an enormous barrier cutting across the stage (where her main lights would usually be), that space got cut in half. As a result, Tundermann stuck lights wherever she could, using the creative restriction to cast dramatic shadows on the faux-brick set to great horror-inspired effect. She also avoided using the color green during “Somewhere That’s Green,” so kudos for passing up low hanging fruit to make the right decision for an emotional moment.
Performing at high levels on so many fronts proves that Stockman made a good aesthetic call by incorporating musicals like this into Constellation’s seasons, and it has become a delightful showcase for talents of all kinds at their intimate theater. I recommend catching this production because this Little Shop is big fun.
Little Shop of Horrors. Music by Alan Menken. Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman. Directed by Nick Martin. Featuring Selena Clyne-Galindo, Chani Wereley, Alan S. Thomas, Robert John Biedermann, Teresa Quigley Danskey, Christian Montgomery, Scott Ward Abernathy, Marty Austin Lamar, and Rj Pavel. Musical Direction by Walter “Bobby” McCoy. Choreography by Ilona Kessell. Scenic Design by A.J. Guban. Costume Design by Frank Labovitz. Sound Design by Justin Schmitz. Puppet Design by MattaMagical. Lighting Design by Sarah Tundermann. Properties Design by Alexander Rothschild. Conducting by Marika Anne Contouris. Fight and Intimacy Choreography by Lorraine Ressegger-Sloane. Dialect Coaching by Jenna Berk. Stage Management by Kathryn Dooley. Produced by Constellation Theatre Company. Reviewed by Alan Katz.