Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Little Shop of Horrors
Washington area actor Bobby Smith has already received nine nominations for the Helen Hayes Award. One hopes that his hilarious performance in Olney Theatre Center's production of Little Shop of Horrors finally earns him the award.
To be sure, Smith doesn't play the lead role of Seymour (James Gardiner), the plant-loving nebbish whose alliance with a bloodthirsty plant leads him to both success and despair. He is Orin, the "semi-sadist" boyfriend of Seymour's co-worker Audrey (Carolyn Agan)and he finds amazingly clever and surprising nuances in his portrayal. (Look and listen fast for a tiny homage to Sweeney Todd.) He owns the stage whenever he appears.
Director Mark Waldrop has staged a solid production of the 1982 musical by Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken (music), with strong performances across the board. If anything, it's rather tame and lacking in edge: for example, James Fouchard's scenic design resembles a diorama in its elaborate details, from a two-dimensional elevated railroad track to reversible set pieces. But even the gory scenes that audiences know to expect, emphasized with foreboding music and spooky lighting, don't deliver much more than a shiver.
In his performance, Gardiner emphasizes the underlying sweetness of Seymour, a beaten-down fellow who stumbles into success with the help of the ever-growing "Audrey II" and realizes that personal gratification may conflict with ethical behavior. Agan is a rather gentle Audrey who gives a heartfelt rendition of "Somewhere That's Green." However, her costumes (designed by David Kaley) are less tacky than they should be, causing a few laugh lines to fall flat, and her connection to Seymour becomes obvious rather early on. Kara-Tameika Watkins, Shaunte Tabb, and Leayne C. Freeman are adorably sassy and tuneful as the girl-group Greek chorus.
Then there's Ethan Watermeier as Mr. Mushnik, the curmudgeonly florist on Skid Row who employs Seymour and Audrey. He's too youthful, vital, and vocally powerful for the role: the character's little nods to Fiddler on the Roof are supposed to be humorous, but Watermeier treats them seriously. The performance is certainly not bad, but it doesn't fit the play or the character.
Puppeteers Eric Brooks and Elliott Davis have done a noteworthy job with the various incarnations of Audrey II. More than the wide, mobile mouth (voiced powerfully by Stephawn Stephens), they manage to animate the roots, branches, and leaves.
Olney Theatre Center