Hayes Theatre Co, February 23
The Hayes Theatre Co burst onto the scene in February 2014 with a brilliantly re-imagined production of Sweet Charity. Two years later, the same creative team, led by director Dean Bryant, has reunited to stage Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s 1982 cult musical Little Shop of Horrors.
Naturally, expectations were high but this pitch-perfect production (from Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions) exceeds them.
Based on Roger Corman’s 1960 black-and-white schlock-horror film, Menken has described Little Shop of Horrors as “a merry little musical romp about how greed will end the world”.
Set in the early 1960s, a downtrodden, dorky florist’s assistant on Skid Row called Seymour Krelborn dreams of a better life and winning the love of his equally put-upon co-worker Audrey, who is dating a sadistic dentist.
When Seymour discovers a strange plant, which he calls Audrey II, fame and fortune follow. But the plant needs human blood to survive and its appetite just keeps growing. Seymour must decide how and whether to keep feeding it.
With a wonderfully catchy score drawing on 1960s rock and doo-wop, a tight plot and razor-sharp lyrics, Little Shop has long been a crowd-pleaser. But Bryant’s superb production gives the show a fresh heart and dark edge that could hardly be bettered, balancing the show’s spoofy comedy and gritty themes perfectly.
Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny but we never lose sight of the fact that the plant feeds on greed and self-interest (even if it comes from a heartfelt, innocent place) as well as human flesh. It is also a metaphor for every fear about being invaded and consumed whether by aliens or migrants, communism or capitalism, anything we might consider threatening.
Owen Phillips’ superb, off-kilter set with its drab florist shop and clever projections on a front curtain embodies an inspired surprise in the way it plays with colour, while the plant itself is a series of remarkable, ever-bigger puppets by Sydney-based company Erth Visual & Physical Inc., eventually taking over most of the stage. When the plant gets its teeth into a full, meaty meal, it’s so well choreographed it’s stomach-turningly convincing.
Tim Chappel’s costuming is gorgeously kitsch, and Andrew Hallsworth’s witty choreography is sensational, ranging from a modern take on 1960s girl group moves to a hilarious Russian/Jewish folk dance with squatting kicks and turns for “Mushnik and Son”. Brought to vibrant, heightened life by Ross Graham’s lighting, the production is an eye-popping visual delight.
Musically the production is terrific too, performed by a five-piece offstage band led by musical director Andrew Worboys. At times, in a minor quibble, the sound is a bit loud for the tiny Hayes but that won’t be an issue when the production goes into larger venues on its national tour.
Bryant has cast the show beautifully. As Seymour and Audrey, two lost souls who briefly glimpse happiness, Brent Hill and Esther Hannaford give the production an aching heart.
Hill is totally endearing as Seymour. In an intriguing move, Bryant has Hill voice the plant too, which opens up Seymour’s relationship with Audrey II to various interpretations. It means that Hill sings an extraordinary duet with himself in “Feed Me (Git It)”. It’s hugely demanding technically but Hill does it so superbly (a vocal tour de force) you don’t even realise he’s doing it initially.
Hannaford is exquisite as the ditsy Audrey, conveying her vulnerability and painful lack of self-esteem. Her comic timing is impeccable and her ravishing voice shimmers with emotion whether it’s gently caressing a ballad or soaring into the stratosphere. “Suddenly Seymour”, which she sings with Hill is a spine-tingling musical highlight.
Ellen Greene, who played Audrey in the original production and Frank Oz’s 1986 film, famously gave the character a girlish, breathy voice complete with lisp. Hannaford’s accent is less pronounced than that (mercifully) but mixes an Eastern European tinge into the New York drawl, which works well.
Scott Johnson is hilarious as the psychopathic dentist who gets high on nitrous oxide while inflicting pain, giving him a knowing swagger. Tyler Coppin is also very funny as the mercenary, unmensch Mr Mushnik.
As the sassy girl-group Greek chorus, Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane and Chloe Zuel each have a fierce individual presence and voice while harmonising tightly, raising the roof.
Bryant brings it all together in a production that is dazzlingly entertaining, creepy in a comical kind of way and yet tough enough to get under your skin and keep you pondering it long after the lights have gone down. Utterly brilliant.
Little Shop of Horrors plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 19. It then tours to Adelaide Festival Centre from April 20 – 29; Comedy Theatre, Melbourne from May 4– 12; Canberra Theatre Centre from May 25 – 29; QPAC, Brisbane from June 1 – 9; Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney from July 20 – 24; His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth from August 4 – 7.
A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 28