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

bass.net.au

Melbourne – Comedy Theatre from May 4th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE MONDAY 30TH NOVEMBER

ticketmaster.com.au

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

Verity Hunt-Ballard interview

Verity Hunt-Ballard promoting Sweet Charity. Photo suplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard promoting Sweet Charity. Photo suplied

Last time Verity Hunt-Ballard performed in Sydney she flew over the heads of the audience as Mary Poppins in Cameron Mackintosh’s sumptuous, award-winning production.

Now, she is taking on another starring role – as Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity – but this time in a gritty, intimate production.

The show has been chosen to launch the new Hayes Theatre Co, which is turning the former Darlinghurst Theatre in Potts Point into a home for small-scale musicals and cabaret. The exciting initiative looks set to shake up musical theatre in Sydney.

With only 115 seats and audiences sitting up close, “there will be nowhere to hide”, says Hunt-Ballard with a laugh.

“The last role I played was in 2000-seat theatres, which is a different discipline in a way, a different way of storytelling. (Sweet Charity) is really a play with music essentially, not like going to your big budget musicals – which are wonderful obviously, I’m a huge fan of them – but this is different and kind of unique. It’s really exciting to me because I haven’t done a small piece for many years.”

After Mary Poppins ended, Hunt-Ballard – whose other credits include Jersey Boys and The Rocky Horror Show – took a break from musicals to recover from the demanding two-year run.

“It was such a huge journey for me and ticked a lot of boxes, I guess,” says the softly spoken performer, who had only played supporting roles until then. “It was incredible but really hard yakka doing eight shows a week for two years. But it was a huge learning curve and I’m very, very grateful.”

For the past year – apart from appearing in a short return season of Eddie Perfect’s Shane Warne The Musical – she has been focused on raising her baby daughter with partner Scott Johnson who she met when they were performing together in Jersey Boys. However, Sweet Charity was too special an opportunity to resist.

“When (director) Dean Bryant and (producer) Lisa Campbell ring you and say ‘would you like to play Sweet Charity?’ even with an 11-month baby you say ‘yes’,” says Hunt-Ballard.

“We’re opening a theatre honouring Nancye Hayes who’s a really dear friend of mine and who has been my mentor really. She directed me at WAAPA years ago and we’ve been friends ever since. She calls herself my daughter’s fairy godmother. So all the stars aligned and I thought, ‘I’ll just have to take this job’. We’ve just moved to Melbourne but my darling Scott said, ‘OK, we’ll go back.’”

With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and book by Neil Simon, Sweet Charity opened on Broadway in 1966 in a production directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse with Gwen Verdon as Charity.

Other actors to have played the title role include Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 film and Nancye Hayes in the original 1967 Australian production.

It tells the story of eternal optimist Charity Hope Valentine, who dreams of being rescued from her job as a hostess in the seedy Fandango Dancehall by love and marriage.

Though she retains an element of innocence about her, Charity is polls removed from the “practically perfect” Mary Poppins.

“I feel, approaching this role, even more equipped having been through the last year emotionally and having to go to really dark places of sleep deprivation,” says Hunt-Ballard. “Not that Charity has children but she is certainly a character that has had to deal with life’s challenges. She’s tough. Full of hope but really tough (and) quite damaged in a way. She suffers rejection so many times but she just keeps going. It’s a story about the human spirit in a way.”

The Hayes Theatre Co production is directed by Dean Bryant whose many musical theatre credits include working as associate director on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical around the world, the world premiere of An Officer and a Gentleman and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He has also directed The Producers, Anything Goes and The Pirates of Penzance for The Production Company in Melbourne.

In 2006, three years after Hunt-Ballard graduated from WAAPA, he directed her in a show he co-wrote with composer Matthew Frank called Virgins, which went to the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Longtime friends, Hunt-Ballard is excited to be working with him again.

“Dean’s vision is quite gritty, quite dark and very influenced by Nights of Cabiria, the Fellini film that Sweet Charity was based on, which focuses more on the fact that Charity is a prostitute. She’s not just a dance hall hostess. She really has no skills, no support and she has to do this to survive,” says Hunt-Ballard.

“Our assistant director Valentina Gasbarrino is Italian and she was talking about the Fellini film and what it meant to Rome at that time: the oppression of the working class that he was showing. Dean is really excited that we are performing in the Cross because we really want it to feel like you are stepping into what could be any club (in the area).”

Hunt-Ballard says that the production will be “very physical” with “hip” new musical arrangements by Andrew Worboys and “hot” costumes by Academy Award-winning designer Tim Chappel.

Audiences will watch the show as if they are in the Fandango Ballroom with the characters.

“It’s quite stark,” says Hunt-Ballard. “We will be using minimal props and costume changes will happen on stage. It will take audiences on an emotional trip hopefully – sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes funny and sometimes beautiful.”

Sweet Charity, Hayes Theatre Co, Potts Point until March 9. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 0498 960 586

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on February 2