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

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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

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Brisbane – Playhouse Theatre QPAC from June 1st 2016

TICKETS ON SALE MONDAY 30TH NOVEMBER

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Sweet Charity remount

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 16

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

In February last year, the Hayes Theatre Co burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene with a thrilling production of Sweet Charity directed by Dean Bryant and starring Verity Hunt-Ballard.

The ingeniously staged, dirtied-up, gritty take on the 1966 musical had audiences and critics raving (you will find my review on this blog) and three days after opening you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money.

The show went on to win three Helpmanns for Bryant, Hunt-Ballard and choreographer Andrew Hallsworth and has nine nominations at the 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards to be presented tomorrow (January 19).

The announcement of a remount at the Sydney Opera House’s 400-seat Playhouse Theatre and then a tour to Canberra, Melbourne and Wollongong generated much excitement. But how would the production – created for the intimacy of the 110- seat Hayes Theatre – fare in a bigger venue?

Well, it has sashayed seamlessly into the Playhouse where it received a rapturous response at Friday’s opening night.

Inevitably you lose some of the intimacy but there are compensations. Hallsworth’s fabulous choreography (with nods to Fosse) has more room to sharpen and breathe for starters. And if anything, the performances seem more detailed than ever as most of the original performers revisit their roles.

The grungy staging is essentially the same: an inspired use of a couple of two-way mirrors, a few chairs, a costume rack and a red neon sign at the back saying, “Girls, Girls, Girls” (set design by Owen Phillips).

Tim Chappel has revamped some of the costumes adding extra colour and sparkle to various outfits including the witty, surreal costumes for The Frug, which gives the production a little more visual zing in the larger space.

Hunt-Ballard, who gave a sensational performance last time around as Charity Hope Valentine – the dance hall hostess with a heart of gold who keeps looking for love (and at one point an office job) as a passport to a better life – is more stunning than ever.

She radiates such warmth, such sweet, kooky naivety and such sunny optimism that her Charity is irresistibly endearing. Her comic timing is a knockout but always there is the knowledge that Charity uses ditzy humour to deal with her hurt and pain, as a way to bounce back, until that final, terrible let-down.

Hunt-Ballard inhabits the role completely. She sings superbly, dances well and her acting is sublime. But never do we feel that she is busting out a big song-and-dance number. Always the songs emerge organically from the character and the situation whether it’s the exuberant, show-stopping If My Friends Could See Me Now or Where Am I Going? which she delivers in heartbreaking fashion.

She is beyond divine in the role; it’s hard to imagine anyone playing Charity better.

Bryant brings this kind of truth to every aspect of the production. Character and emotion colour every song. Hey Big Spender erupts with the crowd-pleasing blast you expect but the girls look blank, emotionally shutdown, as they display their wares in the meat-market line-up.

Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole and Debora Krizak. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole and Debora Krizak. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Hunt-Ballard, Debora Krizak as Nickie and Kate Cole as Helene (two of the other girls from the seedy Fandango Ballroom where Charity works) sing There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This it feels as exuberant as ever but tinged with palpable sadness: three feisty women, perilously close to being over the hill, knowing they will probably never escape this life.

Cole is new to the production and she is a great addition to the cast, bringing a real weight to the role of Helene.

Martin Crewes reprises the roles of Charlie, Vittorio Vidal and Oscar and again creates wonderfully delineated characters. His suave Vittorio is particularly strong and he sings Too Many Tomorrows with a lovely, classic Italianate tenor sound, then slides effortlessly into a nerdy, Jerry Lewis-tinged Oscar. In fact, his performance sits better in the larger space than in the tiny Hayes where it felt a tad outsized.

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: Jeff Busby

Krizak is once again a delight as the hard-boiled Nickie, nailing her fierce one-liners, and also as Ursula, Vittorio’s glamorous, jealous girlfriend.

As at the Hayes, the band – led by musical director Andrew Worboys on keys – sits along the back of the stage but it’s great to see them given more space and visibility. Worboys’ fantastic, funky, electronic orchestrations of the songs are again a winning, driving element of the production.

Bryant integrates the musicians into the production with Kuki Tipoki playing guitar as well as Big Daddy along with several ensemble roles, while Worboys plays Fandango owner Herman.

Original producers Luckiest Productions (Lisa Campbell, David Campbell and Richard Carroll) and Neil Gooding Productions are joined for the tour by Tinderbox Productions (Liza McLean). They should have a huge hit on their hands.

This is one of the most exciting musical theatre productions I’ve seen in a long time: a show given fresh life and raw, gritty currency by a superb creative team and cast. It has made the leap to the larger space in style. Don’t miss it.

Sweet Charity plays at the Sydney Opera House until February 8; The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, February 11 – 21; Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, February 25 – March 8; Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, March 11 – 15

Sweet Charity

Hayes Theatre Co, February 13

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Walking into the tiny theatre at Potts Point you are thrust straight into the world of Sweet Charity. A red neon sign reads “Girls, Girls, Girls”, the band is vamping, and the sexily clad ladies at the seedy Fandango Ballroom where Charity works are already on stage, enticing men from the audience to dance with them.

It’s the perfect start to a fabulous production of the 1966 musical (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by Neil Simon), brilliantly re-imagined by director Dean Bryant for the times and the intimate venue.

Produced by Luckiest Productions and Neil Gooding Productions, Sweet Charity is the first production for the new Hayes Theatre Co, which is turning the venue (formerly known as the Darlinghurst Theatre) into a home for small-scale musicals and cabaret.

Sweet Charity tells the story of a dance hall hostess with a heart of gold looking for love in all the wrong places. With its episodic structure, it’s not the greatest musical ever written, merely following Charity as she is dumped by a louse called Charlie, encounters suave Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal, and becomes engaged to neurotic accountant Oscar. But it’s joyous, funny and touching with some great songs including “Big Spender”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “The Rhythm of Life”.

Bryant has given the show a dirtier, grittier edge that makes it feel more current. It’s a small theatre for a musical but Bryant stages it ingeniously on Owen Phillips’s simple, grungy set (a few costume racks and some chairs), making inspired use of a couple of two-way mirrors. Ross Graham’s moody lighting is also impressive.

A small, sharp band, led by musical director Andrew Worboys on keyboards, sits at the back of the stage and there’s a cast of 12 but the production rarely feels squashed.

Occasionally you sense the dance routines longing to break out as in Bob Fosse’s famous, original choreography. However, Andrew Hallsworth has done a fantastic job of choreographing distinctive, tight little movements and routines, while his twist on the Rich Man’s Frug, with surrealistic costumes by Academy Award-winner Tim Chappel, works a treat.

The terrific new musical arrangements by Worboys (who also plays Fandango owner Herman) and Chappel’s witty, sexy costumes (with wigs by Ben Moir) heighten the edgy vibe perfectly.

In her little, red, lacy dress, Verity Hunt-Ballard is gorgeous as Charity, capturing her kookiness, sweetness, sunny optimism and vulnerability. In a production this gritty, Charity might perhaps have been a little more “shop soiled” but it’s a radiant, endearing performance; sensationally sung, danced and acted, with knockout comic timing.

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: supplied

Martin Crewes plays Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar and delineates them with wonderfully detailed performances, making us care about the dorky Oscar as well as Charity.

Debora Krizak is also a standout, doubling as Nickie, Charity’s hard-bitten friend at the Fandango Ballroom, and Ursula, Vittorio’s glamorous, jealous girlfriend (here with an English accent). My date for the evening didn’t realise they were the same performer. But the entire ensemble is on song.

Having begun with the stage buzzing, the production ends in poignant fashion with Charity alone on an empty stage: a powerful conclusion to a fresh, thrilling production.

Sweet Charity announces the arrival of an exciting new musical theatre initiative in Sydney in emphatic fashion. It has set the benchmark high. Don’t miss it.

Sweet Charity plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point until March 9. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

A slightly edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 16