Set on LA’s skid row, it tells the story of a luckless florist’s assistant who nurtures a plant that feeds on human blood. It’s underscored by doo-wop and early Motown-influenced musical tracks, and it’s been around since 1982, when it faced its first audience off-Broadway.
So in 2016, is Little Shop of Horrors any good?
Fortunately, it really is. Director Dean Bryant (whose myriad of credits include his Helpmann Award-winning direction of 2014’s Sweet Charity revival), has taken the much-loved cult classic of the 80s, and breathed new life into it, creating an exciting, dynamic and stupendously performed presentation that places its timeless social commentary front and centre.
Seymour (Brent Hill) is the assistant who finds ever-increasing fame as the man responsible for growing an unusual-looking plant that resembles a venus flytrap. Succumbing to the plant’s demands to provide the only form of sustenance it will accept, Seymour engages in monstrous and unthinkable behaviour – all in the name of securing his moment in the sun, and winning the affections of co-worker Audrey (Esther Hannaford). But in true Faustian fashion, he must ultimately pay a high price for his fleeting successes.
Bryant has worked with his actors to ensure that, in telling this outlandish tale, the characters are portrayed without the high camp that has become a common feature in staging Little Shop. That choice is key to his efforts to remain faithful to the intentions of book writer and lyricist, Howard Ashman, who made an explicit note to that effect in the script.
The pay off in doing so is significant here, with characters that are sympathetic, rather than irritating. You need look no further than Hill and Hannaford, who both deliver powerhouse performances. Hill is hapless but endearing, and while driven to acts of evil, his Seymour takes the audience with him. He demonstrates remarkable vocal versatility throughout, particularly during ‘Git It’ and ‘Suppertime’, in which Hill sings for both his own character and Audrey II, the plant – an excellent device to depict Seymour’s internal struggle, as he wrestles between what’s right and wrong. Hills’ is an exceptionally energetic performance, and that energy never wavers.
Hannaford’s performance further evidences what we’ve all come to know in the years since her stint as Penny Lou Pingleton in Hairspray – that she’s a masterful musical theatre actor. The laughs she generates as Audrey come not from a hammed up delivery of lines or exaggerated movement, but from a skilful, nuanced characterisation that incorporates subtle gesture and indicates a focus on portraying a person who’s actually believable. And vocally, she’s astonishing. A stunning rendition of her duet with Hill, ‘Suddenly Seymour’, is the standout moment of the evening. This is an award-worthy performance.
Tyler Coppin’s Mr Mushnik is sold with similar adeptness on show. His duet with Hill, ‘Mushnik and Son’, highlights his excellent comedic timing and solid vocals. And Scott Johnson succeeds in ensuring the steady flow of laughs through his maniacal portrayal of sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello.
As the trio of street urchins, Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane and Chloe Zuel add enormous vocal prowess to the show’s bigger musical numbers, and similarly show the power of each of their voices in the trio’s own scenes, ensuring those moments are vivacious, punctuating the action.
Andrew Worboys leads a strong live band that generates a big sound for this small room, performing the score with a gusto that matches the performers on stage.
Set designer, Owen Phillips, and costume designer, Tim Chappel, have triumphed in bringing to life a world that, while obviously terrifying, is an absolute treat to look at. The monochromatic tones, to which all design aspects adhere in the first act, beautifully contrast the vibrant colour palette that characterises act II.
Of course, no production of Little Shop of Horrors can be appraised without commenting on its success (or lack thereof) in creating the villainous Audrey II plant. The good news is audiences set to attend this production in the coming weeks can rest assured they’ll encounter a rather spectacular example of puppetry. Erth Visual & Physical Inc were responsible for puppet design and construction duties, and have created two versions of Audrey II that are significant in size and scale, and appropriately repulsive. Most impressively, the cast is responsible for operating each puppet, and should you have the opportunity to attend, you’ll understand how considerable an achievement it is to make Audrey II’s interaction with its human counterparts convincing.
Little Shop of Horrors’ first professional production in Australia in over 25 years is a revival that will be remembered. The magnificent cast, gorgeous design elements and exuberant musical numbers have made Audrey II and co as appealing to theatregoers today as ever before.
Little Shop of Horrors plays at The Hayes Theatre until March 19.
Tickets can be purchased here