Little Shop of Horrors

Hayes Theatre Co, February 23

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Tyler Coppin as Mr Mushnik and Brent Hill as Seymour (with Audrey II). Photo: Jeff Busby

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.

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Esther Hannaford as Audrey, Brent Hill as  Seymour and Audrey II. Photo: Jeff Busby

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.

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Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill. Photo: Jeff Busby

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.

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Angelique Cassimatis, Chloe Zuel and Josie Lane. Photo: Jeff Busby

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

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Little Shop of Horrors is Back for More Blood

Brent Hill will play Seymour and Esther Hannaford will play Audrey in the new Hayes Theatre Co production of Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: supplied

Brent Hill will play Seymour and Esther Hannaford will play Audrey in the new Hayes Theatre Co production of Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: supplied

In February 2014, the Hayes Theatre Co burst onto Sydney’s musical theatre scene with a brilliantly re-imagined, award-winning production of Sweet Charity, which later had a return season at the Sydney Opera House and then toured.

Now, as revealed in today’s Sunday Telegraph, the same creative team is reuniting almost exactly two years later to stage a production of Little Shop of Horrors, produced by Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions.

Dean Bryant will direct with musical direction by Andrew Worboys, choreography by Andrew Hallsworth, set design by Owen Phillips, costume design by Tim Chappel, lighting design by Ross Graham and sound design by Jeremy Silver.

The kooky musical about a man-eating plant will open at the Hayes in February then tour nationally.

“We had so much fun (on Sweet Charity),” says Lisa Campbell of Luckiest Productions.

“We were very fortunate that Sweet Charity got the life that it did and I’m very proud of what the creative team produced. It was a very special time. It’s not that we’re trying to rebottle that but the team worked so incredibly well together it makes sense to jump back on the bus and do another one.”

A national tour has already been locked in for logistical reasons, says Campbell: “With the amount of musicals in the market over the next year or so it would have been very difficult to wait and see how the Hayes season went and hope for a transfer and extension afterwards so we had to think about it in those terms. We also decided that if we were going to be able to do the show that we wanted, we needed to have enough venues to support it as we wanted the plant to be as spectacular as possible.”

Little Shop of Horrors was written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, who went on to co-write the songs for Disney’s animated films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. (The Disney musical of Aladdin opens in Sydney next August). Little Shop premiered off-off Broadway in 1982 then ran off-Broadway for five years.

Set in the early 1960s, Seymour Krelborn is a hapless, meek florist’s assistant on Skid Row, who dreams of a better life and winning the love of his co-worker Audrey. When he discovers a strange plant, which he calls Audrey II, fame and fortune follow. But as Audrey II grows, so does its appetite for human flesh.

Based on Roger Corman’s 1960 film, Menken has described the musical as “a merry little musical romp about how greed will end the world.”

The catchy score is composed in the style of 1960s rock and roll, doo-wop and early Motown with songs including Feed Me, Suddenly Seymour and Somewhere That’s Green.

“I think the music is spectacular and I think the story is tragic and beautiful and hilarious. When we got to the Hayes, it was one of the first things that I thought deserved to be on that stage and would suit it,” says Campbell.

The new Hayes production features a top-notch cast with Brent Hill (Rock of Ages, Once) as Seymour, Esther Hannaford (King Kong, Miracle City) as Audrey, Tyler Copin (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) as the florist Mr Mushnik and Scott Johnson (Jersey Boys) as Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend, along with Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane, Chloe Zuel, Dash Kruck and Kuki Tipoki.

Brent Hill and Esther Hannaford with Audrey II. Photo: supplied

Brent Hill and Esther Hannaford with Audrey II. Photo: supplied

Audrey II is being created by Erth, a theatre company known for its extraordinary puppets in shows such as Dinosaur Zoo. Campbell, who had been aware of their work for several years, went to talk with them 18 months ago.

“I met with Steve Howarth, one of the founders of Erth, and I said, ‘I’m not sure if you’re aware of the musical Little Shop of Horrors but I need somebody to create a man-eating plant.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for 25 years for somebody to ask me to do this,’” says Campbell.

“We have three versions of Audrey II and within each of those there is room for the plant to grow. It’s very exciting.”

The Hayes will unveil the rest of its program for the first half of 2016 at a launch tomorrow night.

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on October 18

TOUR DATES

 Sydney – Hayes Theatre Co from February 18th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE NOW

hayestheatre.com.au or ticketmaster.com.au

Adelaide – Her Majesty’s Theatre from April 20th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE WEDNESDAY 28TH OCTOBER

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Melbourne – Comedy Theatre from May 4th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE MONDAY 30TH NOVEMBER

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Canberra – Canberra Theatre from May 25th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE WEDNESDAY 25TH NOVEMBER

canberratheatrecentre.com.au or ticketmaster.com.au

Brisbane – Playhouse Theatre QPAC from June 1st 2016

TICKETS ON SALE MONDAY 30TH NOVEMBER

qpac.com.au

Once

Princess Theatre, Melbourne, October 18 matinee

Madeleine Jones and Tom Parsons.  Photo: Jeff Busby

Madeleine Jones and Tom Parsons. Photo: Jeff Busby

Once is a lovely, wistful little musical that could charm the birds from the trees, so it could. It certainly had the audience entranced at the performance I saw.

Based on John Carney’s low-budget 2006 film starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who also wrote the songs, it maintains the bittersweet, understated feel of the movie but has enough added brio to really shine on stage.

Winner of eight Tony Awards including Best Musical when it opened on Broadway in 2012, the Australian production is co-produced by John Frost with the Melbourne Theatre Company.

As soon as you enter the auditorium you are swept up into the world of the piece. Several performers are already on stage making music and dancing, joined by various members of the audience who hang around, drink in hand, as if at an impromptu ceilidh in an Irish pub. Then, before we know it, we are into the action of the piece.

Set in Dublin, Once tells the story of an Irish Guy and Czech Girl (we never learn their names). They meet when she passes him busking on the street, howling a song in anger and pain. She recognises some kind of kindred spirit in him. Both are musicians (she plays piano) and both are dealing with difficult, unresolved relationships.

Disillusioned, he is on the verge of giving up music but over the next five days she badgers and cajoles him into recording an album. He meets her mother, daughter and friends – who support him on the album – and as they bond over music, love quietly blooms between them. But it is not destined to be.

Bob Crowley’s set design is an old-style pub with walls covered by framed, tarnished mirrors. A hidden walkway over the top is used for brief scenes when the Guy and Girl escape town. Other than that different locations are suggested with little more than the odd prop moved quickly into place.

The lo-tech nature of the staging adds to the charm. The busking scene segues into a hoover repair shop simply by someone pushing a vacuum cleaner across the stage to Girl, for example. It looks deceptively simple but director John Tiffany has done an ingenuous job of keeping the action flowing in ways that are inventive and often witty.

The direction is complemented by Steven Hoggett’s stunning movement – which isn’t dancing in the ‘big-production-number’ way of many musicals. Instead it combines dancing that emerges directly from the story with more gestural movement that feels deeply imbued with emotion.

Tiffany and Hoggett collaborated on Black Watch, the superb National Theatre of Scotland production seen at the 2008 Sydney Festival, and their work is just as special here.

The cast of Once.  Photo: Jeff Busby

The cast of Once. Photo: Jeff Busby

The songs, which combine a Celtic folksy feel with light pop-rock and gorgeous ballads, spring naturally from the action and seduce with their infectious, lilting rhythms. They include the haunting Academy Award-winning song Falling Slowly.

The fact that the music is performed by the cast, all of whom play instruments (fiddle, guitar, cello, mandolin, drums etc) and most of whom rarely leave the stage, also adds to the charm of the show.

Enda Walsh’s book manages to include sentiment without becoming sentimental and offsets it with lots of humour, from the straight-talking bluntness of Girl to the slapstick humour of her manic drummer friend. When Guy sings a song in the pub, introducing it as one that he wrote, someone in the crowd groans “Aw, fuck.”

The use of surtitles is also cleverly done. Most of the dialogue between the Czech characters is conducted in English with Czech surtitles, but occasionally they speak Czech with English surtitles. It’s a neat touch and used in just the right way.

The production has been beautifully cast. Madeleine Jones (best known in Sydney as a straight actor for companies including Sport for Jove and pantsguys) is gorgeous as Girl, underpinning her pugnacious, straight-speaking feistiness with plenty of heart. Her comic timing is great and she has a lovely voice.

Tom Parsons (who is a British actor) captures Guy’s lanky, slightly daggy-shaggy quality but also conveys his soulfulness and pain, and he sings with a heartfelt rawness. The chemistry between them is tangible and when they sing and make music together it’s magic.

There’s a terrific supporting cast. Amy Lehpamer exudes great energy and zesty charisma as the fiddle-playing, sassy Reza (one of Girl’s Czech friends). Colin Dean is very funny as the grouchy music shop owner Billy who hankers after Girl, as is Susan-ann Walker as Girl’s mother, Brent Hill as Czech drummer Svec, and Anton Berezin as the bank manager with musical aspirations.

The ending is bittersweet. The unfulfilled love story gives the piece an air of melancholy but both Girl and Guy have been reinvigorated by their relationship, while the friendships that blossom – even between the initially hostile Billy and the bank manager – are uplifting. Somehow it all feels real: some things work out, some don’t but that’s life.

A paen to the power of music and the importance of friendship, Once creeps gently up on you and plays with your heartstrings. I must admit I didn’t expect to be so moved by it but I went home enchanted.

Once is at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until December 31. Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au