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Plants make tidy metaphors: The life cycle of seed to sprout is an efficient shorthand for transformation, and flora have been imbued with power and meaning since before Eve ate the apple from the tree of knowledge. Little Shop of Horrors, inspired by an old black comedy of the same name, is similarly concerned with humans reaping what they sow, and uses a giant green weed to skewer greed and the American Dream. Though it was written in the 1980s and is set in the 1960s, the musical remains as fresh and sharp as ever.
Little happens at the unsuccessful Skid Row Florists until nebbish florist Seymour (Christian Montgomery) starts caring for a strange plant that turns up during a solar eclipse and puts it in the window. Soon the shop is bustling, the proprietor Mr. Mushnik (Robert John Biedermann) finally warms to his surrogate son, and sweet coworker Audrey (Teresa Quigley Danskey) finally seems to take Seymour seriously. The plant, christened Audrey II, happens to have the gift of gab, and promises to make Seymour’s dreams come true if Seymour keeps it on a steady diet of human blood. After draining his own veins to the point of anemia, how far might Seymour go to do the bud’s bidding?
This dark morality play is camoflauged by a snappy doo-wop soundtrack of familiar tunes and impeccable comic timing from the very game cast. A Greek chorus of girl group backup dancers (Chani Wereley, Selena Clyne-Galindo, and Alana S. Thomas) cheerily narrate and forewarn of the terror to come. The show is a total romp and the musical numbers come in quick succession, but the show never quite lets the viewer relax. Montgomery’s portrayal of Seymour helps maintain this tension, taking a typically jittery character and dialing up his anxiety until it’s practically radiating off the stage. Audrey’s abusive boyfriend Orin (Scott Ward Abernathy) lends a menacing presence to the proceedings, and Danskey plays Audrey with a wounded, heartbreaking sensitivity. When Orin finally bites it, there’s a sense of uneasy relief that’s almost immediately undercut by the sight gag of Seymour feeding his innards to Audrey II.
Audrey II is both the true protagonist and the manifestation of Seymour’s spiraling morality, and both the puppeteer (Rj Pavel) and the voice (Marty Austin Lamar) who bring Audrey II to life deserve praise. The musical numbers anchored by Audrey II are some of the funkiest and funniest in the show, and Lamar’s smooth delivery makes the plant particularly persuasive. Who wouldn’t make a deal with this green devil promising untold wishes, especially if it sang like Barry White? The various iterations of the plant puppets, designed by Matthew Aldwin McGee, are similarly fantastic, starting from a little hand-operated bud and gradually increasing in size until the plant looks nearly ready to swallow up the whole set.
The cramped stage could be a liability for the production, but here it makes Skid Row feel as claustrophobic as it must be to the characters, with windows and alleyways allowing different vignettes to play out. The stage is often awash in an otherworldly green or purple glow, and before the show even begins, A.J. Guban’s set design hints that things are about to get topsy turvy, with a thick assortment of plants that hang upside down from the ceiling, looking like they’re closing in.
And closing in they are, as Audrey II’s unslakable bloodthirst threatens the destruction of all mankind. The early number “Skid Row (Downtown)” takes a dim view of humanity; as the show progresses it seems to suggest, if cheerfully, that perhaps humanity isn’t worth saving at all, love stories and business dreams aside. By the time the rollicking finale rolls around, not just Seymour but the world at large are implicated in the damage. The unsettling undercurrent and audience indictment is what keeps Little Shop of Horrors biting decades after the show was first conceived.
To Nov. 17 at 1835 14th St. NW. $19–$55. (202) 204-7741. constellationtheatre.org.