The time has arrived for Australian musical theatre enthusiasts to be taken back to a time when the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence!
For the first time in 25 years, audiences have the chance to see a professional staging of the hit 1980s cult musical comedy, Little Shop of Horrors, on their own doorstep. Opening tonight at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre, the show will travel around the country, stopping for limited seasons in Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth.
Directed by the highly accomplished and award-winning Dean Bryant, the cast of nine is led by Brent Hill in the role of Seymour and Esther Hannaford as Audrey.
On the eve of the opening, Hill sat down to talk to Theatre People about why audiences should head to The Hayes for Little Shop of Horrors. “If you’ve ever wanted to see a plant devour people whole on stage in front of you, and then have that same plant coax you on stage, come and see the show!”
Created by composer Alan Menker and lyricist and book writer Howard Ashman (names that should ring a bell for any long-time Disney fan), Little Shop of Horrors had its world premiere off-Broadway in 1982. It’s taken to stages across the world ever since, with its ongoing popularity owing considerably to a well-received 1986 film version that featured an all-star cast. It’s now one of the longest-running off-Broadway shows of all time.
“It’s incredibly popular in the schools and amateur market, and the movie is beloved by every kid that came of age in that particular period,” says Dean Bryant.
“So I think there’s a lot of fondness [for] and desire to see the show in any form. But it’s never really been looked at or reinvented in any way since the original production. Most productions that I’m aware of are, pretty much, replicas of that first one.”
So in refreshing the show for 2016 audiences, what did Bryant see as the essential elements?
“What I think was really key was the emotional heart of the show – making sure that I cast actors who could play comedy and truth, and would always take truth over the obvious comedy,” he says.
“Versions that you can see online sometimes play it for high camp. Howard Ashman in the note in the script says, ‘Do not play for high camp’. But somehow, people have gotten it in their heads that that’s the right style for the show. And I feel like a show that so heavily features a girl who is beaten by her boyfriend has to walk that line very carefully, because it’s not funny to hit women and the show cannot rely on that for humour. It has to rely on other things. I wanted to make sure that we dealt with that so sensitively.”
Bryant has also placed considerable emphasis on ensuring the clarity of the theme he describes as being the main backbone of this show.
“Obviously it’s a Faustian tale,” he says. “Seymour does things that he knows he shouldn’t do. But every time he does, it’s only afterwards he [says], ‘I’ve gone too far’. Like Walter White in Breaking Bad, he gets to a point where he can’t come back, and he’s punished for that by the death of the only thing he actually did it all for – Audrey. And then, ultimately, he has to self-sacrifice in order to redeem himself.”
Bryant has assembled a cast of performers who all regularly feature on the professional theatre circuit. Hill and Hannaford have each played key principal roles in some of the highest profile musicals of recent years.
Bryant is more than impressed with the performances they’re delivering, as they step into their roles in Little Shop of Horrors.
“These guys have been phenomenal at going above and beyond in finding the truth and the backstories to their characters,” he says.
Not only that, but those appearing on stage here also walk away from the production with a new skill set.
“They’re all puppeteers now,” Bryant explains. “The big [puppet] is operated by the six cast members who aren’t on stage during those scenes…”
Bryant is no stranger to The Hayes Theatre. In fact, he directed the production that christened the venue’s stage when it opened in early 2014. That production was Sweet Charity, and it went on to receive rave reviews and eight Helpmann Award nominations (ultimately taking home three of those trophies).
He tells Theatre People about his enthusiasm for his return to The Hayes’ stage.
“I really like how intimate the audience/cast relationship is. I like the fact that no one ever thinks you can get big, theatrical stuff in here, and Sweet Charity definitely proved that space is not a limitation. It’s an opportunity.
“We’ve taken that opportunity with Little Shop of Horrors and we’ve broken our own backs with it!”
For Hill, this is the first time appearing in front of an audience at The Hayes.
“I’ve come to a lot of shows at The Hayes and said, ‘I’d love to do a show here,” he says.
“Intimate theatre is fantastic because it means that you don’t have to throw things way out across the yard line. You get to keep it intimate. I love that.
“We’re so close to the audience… and you can see people. It’s just about figuring out whether or not to look at them, to acknowledge them… and I guess we’re still playing with that.”
Taking the show across Australia also means significant work re-sizing the production is ahead. While it plays a 120-seat auditorium in Sydney, audiences for of the other tour stops will see the production in much larger spaces.
“We’ll be going to different theatres, and that will completely change everything,” Hills says. “And I’m really excited for that.”
But regardless of where you see this show, all audiences will have the fortune of seeing ‘Audrey II’ for themselves. As is crucial in all productions of Little Shop, a larger than life puppet has been created in recent months by Australian puppet makers, Erth. But at yesterday’s media call, the star attraction was kept under lock and key, and will only be revealed to audiences attending shows over the coming weeks.
Bryant is certain audiences are going to enjoy their experience.
“They’re going to have the most amazing, romantic but scary time. It’s like a ghost train with emotion this show, and I think audiences just want to be thrilled and delighted, especially musical theatre audiences.
“This show is going to deliver that in spades.”
Tickets for the national tour of Little Shop of Horrors are now on sale
Adelaide: Her Majesty’s Theatre from April 20th 2016
Melbourne: Comedy Theatre from May 4th 2016
Brisbane – Playhouse Theatre QPAC from June 1st 2016
Perth – His Majesty’s Theatre from August 4th 2016