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This review was first published on February 24, 2016, in reference to the premiere season in Sydney at the Hayes Theatre.
Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman’s 1982 cult classic, Little Shop of Horrors, is one of those indestructible musicals, seemingly destined to triumph again and again and winning a new generation of fans with every incarnation. That’s not to say that it can’t flop, or at least wilt, if the creative juices aren’t flowing properly. No fear of that though in Dean Bryant’s lovingly-husbanded, razor sharp staging, whose carefully-fertilised tendrils fill the tiny Hayes Theatre to the gunwales prior to setting sail on national tour later this year.
The unprepossessing source material is a low-budget 1960 schlock-horror movie telling the tongue-in-cheek tale of a put-upon florist’s assistant, living in a wretched city suburb going by the name Skid Row, whose life and fortunes are transformed when an alien plant spore lands in his back room. Bit by bit it grows into a national sensation. The only catch is the creature feeds on blood, posing a dilemma for nice-guy Seymour who has to increasingly compromise his moral decency in order to keep his floral meal ticket alive. Sondheim it ain’t, but it has magnificent tunes, it has guts (in some productions, literally) and it has bags and bags of heart.
For his simple tale, simply told, Bryant is blessed by Owen Phillips’ pitch-perfect, off-kilter retro shop design, with a sparkling series of clever visual projections onto a movable front gauze an added bonus. He also has a fabulous series of plants (the final one with tentacles to die for), courtesy of Australian puppetry wizards Erth Visual and Physical Inc. Ross Graham’s multi-faceted, busy (but never fussy) lighting sets it all off a treat. Add to that a beautiful wardrobe of costumes, first in black, grey and white, then after the interval in glorious Technicolor, thanks to Tim Chappel’s gimlet eye for 1960s kitsch couture, and you have a recipe for a magical, visual feast.
Bryant’s production hardly puts a foot wrong, with a heightened playing style pitched at just the right level to raise maximum laughter. Andrew Hallsworth’s whip-smart choreography could hardly be bettered and the cast seize and relish every sassy strut and snap of the head. The company has no weak link either, ensuring that the emotional chinks in Ashman’s finely judged script can be mined for pathos, allowing those in the audience looking for more than just a couple of hours campy fun can have their sympathies engaged at key moments. Bryant’s only misfire is having the actor playing Seymour also voice the plant. Are we to infer the monstrous plant is merely a figment of the imagination of a murderous man? Seymour Krelborn is a loser, likely even a nerd, but nothing in his character arc suggests he’s a schizophrenic psychopath (nor does a glimmer of that side of his character ever show when the plant isn’t onstage). It’s a very big choice that should change the colour of the whole show, but oddly it doesn’t. So adept is the rest of the production, and so convincing is Brent Hill’s Seymour in his fundamental insecure niceness, that a major directorial decision you’d think would be entirely determining almost passes over our heads.
Casting is a dream. Hill is perfect as the orphan looking for love; societal, parental and otherwise. He’s warm, charming and you root for him instantly. His clean, light baritone is perfect for Seymour, and he’s not bad as the Deep South rhythm and blues voice of Audrey II, though perhaps his requirement to voice both is to blame for us occasionally missing some of the plant’s wittier lyrics. Esther Hannaford is even better, putting in a remarkable turn as the ditzy Audrey, Seymour’s work colleague, love interest and the victimised girlfriend of a sadistic dentist. With a convincingly winning Eastern European immigrant twang to her NY accent, she’s at once smart and vulnerable, and with peerless comic timing she’s very, very funny. “He found me in the gutter,” she confesses sadly, before slaying us with the throw away: “it’s a night spot”. Vocally she’s on the money too, charming in Somewhere that’s Green and bringing the house down in Suddenly Seymour. This must be a sure-fire Helpmann-nomination!
Tyler Coppin makes a subtly scheming Yiddisher grouch out of Mr Mushnik, his character managing a delicate balancing act between duplicitous weasel and wannabe father figure with a tiny scrap of decency. “I used to think you left a stench, but now I see you are a Mensch,” he sings in Mushnik and Son, his showstopper terpsichorean duet with the gullible Seymour. He’s well contrasted with Scott Johnson as the show’s other villain – the goofy, guffawing, gas-guzzling dentist – who fascinates and repels despite the obvious lack of charm of the woman-bashing professional sadist. Topping off the supporting cast are knockout performances by Josie Lane, Chloe Zuel and Angelique Cassimatis as the Motown-inspired girl group Chiffon, Ronnette and Crystal. Played as Latin ladies from the Barrio rather than the usual African American vocal trio, they sing up a storm and their spot-on, high-voltage moves mean they command the stage on every entrance.
Andrew Worboys’ musical direction and Jeremy Silver’s effective sound design ensure that every number as put across by the hidden five piece band feels and sounds just right, with words on the whole coming over crystal clear. It’s a bit loud and geographically general for the Hayes, meaning you lose locational awareness of individual voices in ensemble, but it should work a treat in larger venues down the line.
It’s not often that a show feels as perfectly realised as this. For cast, design, direction – and not least that fabulous piece of flailing flora – this pungently manured Little Shop is well worth breaking open your piggybank to see.
Little Shop of Horrors is at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, until July 22 before heading to Adelaide, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth.