For many thespians, Little Shop of Horrors is very often one of their earliest musical theatre experiences. This is largely due to its enormous popularity throughout the high school and community theatre scene. While its themes are somewhat dark and gruesome (what with all the murder and such), the score is very much reminiscent of the infectious tunes of 60s rock and roll, doo-wop and Mowtown – styles whose appeal and appreciation extends across so many varying demographics. In her director’s note, Waterdale director Rachel Collins made mention of her own personal connection with Little Shop, one that is similarly shared amongst so many who have tread the boards themselves, and her great desire to indulge her nostalgia with breathing a new life into the production for Waterdale’s 10th anniversary. Due to the aforementioned popularity of the show, it has certainly done its rounds, leaving the potential for somewhat carbon-copied, predictable and stale representations of the piece. In saying this however, Waterdale’s take on such a well-known production was incredibly fresh and well-executed. They made no apologies for Little Shop’s sometimes ‘cheesy’ nature but instead capitalised upon it, making for a very enjoyable theatrical experience.
Set and lighting were quaint yet effective. Both married together well to convey the narrative’s focus on hardship to prosperity and the onset of psychological chaos. The audience was well guided in terms of how they should feel, who they should support and who they should reject. This was very much supported by well-calculated and meaningful lighting choices. Costumes were also incredibly helpful in shaping the audience’s opinions and allegiances, with such a careful use of colour schemes and structure not always found in Little Shop (or at least made an obvious priority) that worked well in conjunction with lighting and set to convey messages appropriate to the narrative’s themes and intentions.
Choreography was well executed however, there were moments during ensemble dance opportunities that seemed as though the group were just walking around aimlessly and lacking purpose. While it is understood that in numbers such as ‘Skid Row’, the characters literally feel as though they really don’t have purpose – from an audiences point of view, it felt as though it required a little more structure and better spacing, so as to seem as though the cast on stage knew what they were doing as opposed to accidently moving into the wrong spot, becoming too close to their cast mates whilst leaving large gaps of stage unattended. In saying this, most of the choreography was well tailored to the production, was very simple and performed well by a capable cast.
Musical direction by Sophie Antoniou was certainly well-received and appreciated. The band very obviously responded well to such effective direction and guidance as, in general, they sounded exceptionally capable. A score such as that of Little Shop, is often considered simple yet effective and is incredibly well recognised amongst theatregoers. The band did well to live up to the expectations of Little Shop fans (despite the volume at times being somewhat underwhelming) and were able to complement the cast by offering the audience a tight, rich sound that reflected the 60s rock and Mowtown funky flare that is so very synonymous with the show.
The plants in this production were brilliant. As opposed to other performances whereby the puppets have seemed quite clunky and awkward, these puppets were constructed and used in such a way that allowed for greater interaction with cast on stage and more fluid and believable movement. Kudos to Andrew McDougall for this highlight. David Barclay should also be applauded for his contribution to the voice of Audrey II. His smooth, deep voice is just what was required for this menacing beast. In saying this however, it was often the fact that his vocals were quite low in volume and therefore lacked much of the expected punch. This was quite disappointing as, in some ways, it left the audience wanting. I imagine this would have been equally as frustrating for the cast, especially Barclay, whose voice was his contribution to the show and required the necessary volume to adequately portray his character.
The ensemble itself was quite small with only six members. Having seen this production done numerous times by local high schools, it was somewhat of a novelty to see such a small chorus, despite this being the initial intentions of the creatives behind Little Shop. For the most part, the ensemble did well to support the principal cast. Featured ensemble members portrayed quirky characters offering mostly funny and very appropriately animated depictions, often leaving the audience in fits of laughter. When the group were on stage as a cohort, there were times when it felt as though the collective energy could have been elevated, though to their credit this was often very quickly remedied. It was sometimes difficult to feel fully immersed in the vocals of the group due to instances whereby volume was quite low. It should be mentioned however that these instances were few and far between and does not adequately describe the strength of the ensemble for the entirety of the show. The issue is easily forgiven as the sound quality, particularly the volume was a problem for not just the ensemble but the cast as a whole. While it could very well have been projection issues, it did appear to be attributed to the sound design. This was a shame as it did contribute to a general feeling of becoming disconnected from what was going on onstage at times, however, each of the six ensemble members should be congratulated for their efforts in working to very professionally overcome this technical tribulation.
The Urchins, played by Danielle Carter, Whitney Johnson and Naomi Elias were brought a lot of the spunk, charisma and sass required for this fiery trio. Their harmonies were a joy to listen to. They too fell victim to poor sound and were occasionally found out of the light, however, like the ensemble, did well to overcome this.
Gemma Foster played the fragile and self-conscious Audrey with poise and purpose. She very effectively portrayed the fear of living in an abusive relationship and worked well to tug on the heart strings of the audience. Her vocals were particularly impressive and unfaltering. Audrey’s abusive and sadistic dentist boyfriend, Dr. Orin Scrivello (portrayed by Thomas Bradford) was depicted somewhat differently to Scrivellos of the past. Bradford’s interpretation seemed to highlight the dentist’s quirky, goofy and mentally unstable nuances and mannerisms staggeringly more than his haunting, domineering and unrelenting qualities, particularly his typical brutal physicality – those characteristics which induce a certain fear into the audience, especially for the sake of Audrey. What is interesting however is that this lack in ferocity still allowed for a captivating performance – it was as if the teetering psyche of the doctor rather than his physicality was what was to be truly feared.
In keeping with changing things up a bit, Waterdale took the bold move in casting a female, Mattie Macleod, in the role of Mr. Mushnik (now Ms. Mushnik). The gender change did not seem to cause any disruption to the narrative and theatregoers not familiar with the piece would not have batted an eyelid to it at all. Macleod’s performance as an old, Jewish shop keeper was at times quite funny, the physical humour of the character a crowd favourite. While Macleod seemed to sometimes fall out of character and found it difficult to maintain the rich Jewish accent, this was very easily looked over as her performance, particularly in ‘Mushnik and Son’ and her death scene were quite engaging.
The certain highlight of this performance was the portrayal of the loveable ‘Seymour’ by Tyson Legg. Legg was exceptionally consistent for the entirety of the show; his mannerisms, use of voice, facial expressions, stance and interactions with characters (especially Audrey) were incredibly spot on and incredibly Seymour. His portrayal came across as very natural and therefore very relatable, working exceptionally well to create a very strong bond with the audience who were quick to respond with an ‘aww’ here or a giggle there when appropriate. Simply put, he embodied Seymour exceptionally well and it was a real treat to experience. I look forward to seeing Legg in future performances.
While Waterdale’s season is now over, the production team and cast should be congratulated on providing a fun and fresh take on such a well-known musical. Those who missed out on the opportunity to experience Little Shop should look forward to Waterdale’s next production.