This ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is a bit too cheerful, but don’t overthink it

It’s funny timing for “Little Shop of Horrors” to land at Ford’s Theatre. This is, after all, a musical in which the whole company sings out their desperation to leave “downtown, where the folks are broke/ downtown, where your life’s a joke.” Lately, there’s been a constant hum of anxiety about what ails this corner of D.C.: Its offices are dark, its lunch joints becalmed. Suburban commuters complain of being afraid to dine out, to park their cars, to so much as carry their purses. (Apparently, “Somewhere That’s Green” lies in Northern Virginia.)

But if ever there was a staging to soothe the soul, it’s this one. (Death spiral? What death spiral?) Skid Row, in Paige Hathaway’s set, looks stable, even cute. The storefronts are candy-colored. The trash bags slump politely. The baguettes and boules, piled in a bakery window, do seem pointedly rubbery — the props of a Potemkin prosperity. (Maybe they’re winking at the glossy luxury storefronts, a few blocks from the theater.) But really, other than the ominous flicker of a stained-glass sconce — a neat touch from lighting designer Max Doolittle — Mr. Mushnik’s florist shop looks positively spiffy.

End of carousel

This is where we find Seymour, a rumpled shop assistant in love with his co-worker Audrey, who is dating a no-good-for-her dentist. Seymour tends to a bulbous plant, christened Audrey Two, which develops unusual qualities: It demands his blood. As it grows, the plant brings customers and fame. It also brings its caretaker more intimate, and more precious, forms of attention: an adoption offer from Mr. Mushnik, the possibility of a reciprocated crush.

The role of Seymour has, in recent years, generally been filled by callow, high-strung types. (Off-Broadway, that’s been the likes of Jonathan Groff and Jeremy Jordan.) Derrick D. Truby Jr. takes a fresh approach: His Seymour is just past the first bloom of youth, and all the sadder for it. His forehead gleams. His smile is preemptively apologetic. When Truby unleashes his voice, he doesn’t sound like someone clawing at a chance for success. You sense the longing that’s been buried deep, and forced to lie dormant, for a while now.

Matching his essential decency is Audrey, as played by Chani Wereley. Her Audrey is crisp: All the heels and animal prints in the world couldn’t disguise her steady practicality. Wereley is riveting when she sings, her voice full and rich, and she’s completely persuasive as someone with poignantly, exactingly small dreams: “a washer and a dryer”; a husband who “loves to mow and weed.” But she hasn’t quite clicked with the heart of this character, who, arm in a sling, says of her boyfriend: “If he does this to me when he likes me, imagine what he’d do if he ever got mad!” You never really believe that this Audrey is so pathologically self-loathing that she thinks this is all she deserves.

The other half of this problem is the boyfriend. Joe Mallon sketches his minor characters (“Bernstein,” “Snip,” “Luce,” and “Everyone Else”) with charming adroitness. His Orin, though, is a villain straight out of Cartoon Network, all burgundy pompadour and quivering jowl. Though his downfall, involving nitrous oxide, makes for the show’s most authentically unnerving scene, the character is mostly played for laughs. (When he showed off his custom-embroidered dental whites, someone in my row groaned, with obvious delight, “Stop it.)

A defanged Orin fits right in with the rest of this production, directed by Kevin S. McAllister, which doesn’t let things get too gritty or creepy. Even the Greek chorus of Ronnette, Chiffon and Crystal — played with impressively casual vocal power by Kaiyla Gross, Nia Savoy-Dock and Kanysha Williams — look downright preppy in Alejo Vietti’s costuming. It doesn’t reach for any of the meatier themes that might lurk in the script: technophobia, fame’s corrupting influence, latent racial anxiety. (With its music rooted in Motown and doo-wop, and its plot rooted in fear over urban disorder, the material has a complex relationship with Blackness.) The determined cheer, polishing the more ragged edges of Howard Ashman’s book, proves most problematic for the show’s theoretical climax, when Audrey finds out what really feeds the plant. That moment has already been sapped of the perversity that would allow its dark logic to blossom.

But there’s a reason “Little Shop of Horrors,” with lyrics by Ashman and music by Alan Menken, is a perennial favorite: It’s impossible to ruin and pointless to overthink. Why begrudge this version for leaning into “sweet understanding” (per its most hummable duet)? In the process, the cast and crew have hit on something organically human and genuinely touching: the characters’ desire to be loved — or, failing that, for their devotion to yield some sign of life. When Seymour pleads, “Grow for me!” it’s heartbreaking.

Downtown and beyond, the District is currently smothered in pink plastic blossoms: It’s just the right time, in other words, to retreat to the theater and surrender to the charms of a giant plant puppet.

Little Shop of Horrors, through May 18 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Two hours, including an intermission. fords.org.

correction

An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of lighting designer Max Doolittle. The article has been corrected.

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