It was so much fun interviewing Toby Nelson, who is starring as Audrey in Providence Players of Fairfax’s production of Little Shop of Horrors.
Julia: Hi Toby! Why don’t you tell us something about yourself? Where have we seen you onstage before?
Toby: Hey! Well I grew up right down the road from Providence Players in Falls Church and I’ve been doing theatre since the age of five. I’ve gotten back into community theatre in the last two years starting with playing Paulette in Legally Blonde the Musical with McLean Community Players and most recently as Audrey in As You Like It with The Fat and Greasy Citizens Brigade.
Is this your first time working with the Providence Players? What song did you audition with and what was the process like?
I actually found Providence Players online through an audition announcement for this play. I sang “Special” from Avenue Q, which is my ‘go-to audition’ song for a rock musical. At the first audition we sang our songs and did cold readings from the script. Callbacks were similar, except we sang from the show.
What do you love about this production team?
Honestly this is one of my favorite teams I’ve ever worked with. Providence Players is a close-knit group that has a similar team for most of their shows. Chip and Jimmy Gertzog are a father and son team who directed and tech-directed respectively, and it’s entertaining watching the two of them work together. It is clear that everyone on the production team enjoys each other’s company and respects each other’s ideas. It also helps that they are really fun.
Tell us about Audrey. Have you played this role before? If so, how are you changing up the character in this production?
Ever since my mom and I watched the movie musical Little Shop of Horrors when I was in middle school it has been a dream of mine to play Audrey. The well-meaning but down on her luck New York chick is directly in my wheelhouse.
What do you love about Audrey? How do you relate to her? What are her strengths and weaknesses?
Audrey has a sensitivity and purity to her that transcends what she thinks of as a shameful past. In response to this I’ve seen a lot of people play her as kind of vapid, specifically as a “dumb blonde” kind of stereotype. Chip made it very clear from the outset that he had no interest in playing any of the roles as caricatures (this was part of his decision to simply style my normal hair and forgo the usual platinum blonde wig) so I hope to bring a nuanced view of her to the audience.
I love that! We all know that Little Shop of Horrors is a pretty wild show! How has this experience been for you?
This has been one of the best times I’ve had in theatre, and frankly, in my life. It helps that the cast is terrific and pretty great people besides. For a theatre company that specializes in straight plays I was really impressed and pretty intimidated by the talent of the singers in this show.
Tell us about “Audrey II.” A lot of productions rent the massive prop piece, did Providence Players do the same?
The plant was rented, the company that rents the rights to the show also rents the four stages of the plant. We have two different operators for the plant because it is so physically demanding. Jimmy Gertzog, our technical director, actually built an Audrey LL for his high school production of Little Shop and wanted to do the same for ours, but it made more sense for us to rent it. Ari and Jimmy rock out the plant, though, working hard in tandem with Tom, the voice of Audrey II.
This show opened in Broadway in 1982, and the audiences still “eat it up!” Why do you think the show is still thriving after 31 years?
The musical itself is fantastic and the songs are a ton of fun, but under all of the satire and wit it is an honest story (happening to feature a talking and man-eating plant from outer space). The characters are real people with real hopes and dreams and downfalls. The feeling of hopelessness of the denizens of Skid Row is relatable to anyone, but rings very true in this economy. Finally it is a fun and funny take on the classic Faust tale. Seymour is a good and decent person, but the temptations of the plant are too much for him and he essentially sells his soul for the things he wishes to gain.
What is your favorite scene and/or number to perform?
My favorite number is Audrey’s big solo, “Somewhere That’s Green.” I think it is one of the defining moments of her character, the real first time the audience gets to see her sensitivity and sadness.
How did you prepare for this role?
I know I should say I did tons of research and table work on the character, but I actually didn’t. I made up a backstory that worked for me and I play from that a lot of the time, but a lot of the role just comes from inside me.
There is currently more than one production of Little Shop of Horrors running in the DC/NOVA area. What sets the Providence Players production apart from the rest? I’m partial to the set design.
Having not seen the other production (we have almost the exact same run) I can’t really speak too much to that. I know that we are having a freaking blast and our show comes from the heart and I think that shines through onstage. And yes, Providence Players is known for their amazing sets, and for good reason. Apparently much of our set construction team works in the real construction world and they are almost too talented. For example, we had to take a storm guard off of the door of the shop because it made the door take a little too long to open. Had we been in a real building, however, you can be sure our floors would have remained dry!