Puppets seem to be the flavour of the month at Altona City Theatre. Earlier this year it was Princeton and Kate Monster and the kooky crew from Avenue Q. And what a fabulous production it was. But the Altona stage is about to be taken over by a puppet of a very different ilk. Move over Trekkie, here comes Audrey II and she’s HUNGRY.
Of course I’m talking about the perennial favourite The Little Shop of Horrors which Altona will be presenting for nine shows from 8 to 23 July. This will be the third time the company has presented Little Shop, with productions in 1993 and 2001. This time, making his solo directorial debut, Dan Heskett will be in charge of both direction and musical direction with Dior Deumer as choreographer.
I met Dan recently to ask him about the experience of directing one of his favourite shows and about his long association with Altona City Theatre.
Dan Heskett: Funnily enough the first thing I did with Altona was The Little Shop of Horrors in 2001. Since then I’ve done A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Chess, Hair, Rent, Blood Brothers, The World Goes Round and Avenue Q, so I’ve had a very long running association with Altona. They’re such a comfortable company to work with; it really does feel like a family environment. Once you’ve done a couple of shows and get to know how it works, it just becomes so easy to do a show there.
Apart from being very well-known at ACT, Dan is known widely throughout the musical theatre scene as an MD and a talented trumpeter. I asked him how he came to be both director and MD for Little Shop.
DH: I co-directed, choreographed and musically directed Eurobeat at WMTC in 2009 so I got a bit of a grounding there. And, as MD, I get to work with and watch so many talented directors, people who get some amazing results from the way they direct shows. I feel really lucky that I’ve been privy to watch all these different people work and how they do it. It’s basically been a thirty show master class. And hopefully I’ve taken the best out of all of them. I did actually apply to direct Avenue Q as I’ve done a lot of puppeteering during high school and at university but Altona was happy with the joint application that Dean Mitchelmore and I submitted so they decided to go with Dean as director and me as MD. The committee liked my thoughts on how I would direct Avenue Q so they asked me if I would direct and musically direct The Little Shop of Horrors.
Altona has done Little Shop twice before, most recently in 2001 so it’s interesting that the company would choose to do it a third time.
DH: I’m not sure why the committee decided on the show but from my point of view I’m very happy with that choice for many reasons. Firstly, it’s one of my top five shows and it’s one of those shows that stays in your brain. That made me a lot more confident about taking on both MD and directing given that I already know the score. I knew musically that it wouldn’t be so much of a stretch for me so I’d have more brain space to be able to focus on directing as well. I like the idea of being able to control both the direction and the music. And having such a close friend as Dior Deumer as choreographer, I knew that we’d be able to get things running smoothly and no one element would get in the way of the other.
I spoke to Dan about the 2001 version which was very well received. People do remember it. I wondered what was going to make his Little Shop different.
DH: What’s going to make mine different for starters is the visual feel. I still have such fond memories of the version we did in 2001 and I’m incredibly proud of everything we did. I had to figure out how to give it a different spin so we don’t have people saying “Oh, he just did it the same as they did it 10 years ago. ”
I’ve become a really big fan over the last five or six years of the adaptation of graphic novels into movies. Graphic novels are basically comic books but with a darker edge but there’s still a lot of humour in them. Visually most of the films have the colour washed out of them, except for really big flashes of colour. In some of the movies they use a particular colour to signify a character but sometimes colour will only be used, for example, in a more violent scene. So I’ve taken a mash-up of all that and put it into Little Shop. And the reason I’ve done that is that I’ve felt that a graphic novel feel really does work when you transfer it on to a show like Little Shop because all the humour still plays out really well. And putting the graphic novel feel into the show means that I can play with different angles on the set and use other ways to get the audience off-kilter, to make them feel uncomfortable without really knowing why, in the moments when I want that to happen.
With over 50 people auditioning for nine characters, I asked Dan what he and Dior were looking for at the auditions.
DH: People who could show me a mix of the characters we know and love from Little Shop but who were willing to play around with the characters. For example, the way I wanted Audrey was still very much like the original version but not as vague and dumb – more like the cowering vixen in a film noir movie. The women in film noir or graphic novel movies have a lot of strength to them but there are moments when they’re scared. And I didn’t want Seymour to just be a bumbling nerd. It’s the same with the dentist. I wanted someone who’s scary in a real way rather than cartoon scary. At the auditions I wanted people who showed they could present a traditional version of the show but with a slightly darker edge to the character and for the most part that meant just a bit more realism. Someone you could actually know. The trio was the hardest to figure out from a character point of view because, in the movie and in the script, they’re African American women and it’s written to be sung that way. We had to filter through a lot of people for the audition and a lot of people got really close, especially the trio, because there are some amazingly talented female voices out there and it came down to getting the right blend and chemistry. We didn’t have any call-backs. I’m not a massive fan of call-backs. When you have 300 people auditioning, yes, you might have forgotten the person on the first night three weeks ago. But when you’re casting nine people and you’ve seen fifty, I feel it’s more of a waste of the auditionee’s time because if I can’t get out of them in ten or fifteen minutes what I want to see, then it means I’m not really doing my job.
Dan and Dior have put together an extremely talented cast. I asked Dan what each of them brought to the show.
DH: Brendan Tollit as Seymour is an insanely funny guy. I knew from his audition that the humorous side of Seymour wouldn’t be an issue. The thing about casting Seymour was all about finding the heart within the character. You want to be able to use the moments when Seymour is supposed to be downtrodden. You don’t want to say “Oh yeah, he’s a loser”. You want to feel some emotion for him an, especially in the last 3 or 4 weeks, Brendan has brought that in spades. He’s finding such an adorable character in Seymour that’s working really well.
Jess Barlow is gorgeous and incredibly talented. Both of us have been trying to push Audrey in a slightly different direction, trying to lose the dumbness. Not lose it all but take it out of the complete musical comedy end of the spectrum and bring it more into real life and the two of us have been working really hard on that. She’s still found a way to land every single gag but quite often it’s not in the way you’d normally expect.
From the moment Bob Harsley walked in to audition I could see Mr. Mushnik in him. When he did the read, all I needed to give him was four or five sentences on how I saw the role and he got it straight away. Because we’re making the version more real, I wanted Mr. Mushnik to have a slightly sleazy edge to him and Bob’s great at that.
A lot of people see Dave Barclay as a singer but his acting is phenomenal. We’re doing the original script so, as well as the dentist, Dave is playing eight other characters. It’s just such a shame that he doesn’t get to sing as often as you’d like Dave Barclay to sing in your show but when he does you go “Oh, that’s right, you’ve got an amazing voice”. He’s found a way to make the characters fit the way I want to do the show and still land all the humour and make each character distinctly different from each other.
Narelle Bonnici, Bec McGuinness and Sam Symons form the trio. The three of them have done lots of shows together, they’re also good friends, so they’ve had that chemistry from the start and they’ve found a way to be so tight that everything they do, they do as a group. Vocally, they amaze me. They learnt all the trio numbers in three rehearsals, which are in constant three part harmony. We’re one of the first companies to do the new score from the Broadway revival in 2003 which has a 10 piece band as opposed to the old version which was written for five pieces, and there’s a lot more singing for the trio. I’ve been able to really work the girls hard and we’ve found a way for them to be more of a character as a group rather than ‘those three girls who sing’.
Steven Frisby is hilarious. Frizza is reprising his role as the voice of Audrey II having done it in Altona’s 1993 version. Anyone who’s seen Frizza perform knows that he’s a very physical performer with a very different take on how to be funny. He and Chris, the puppeteer, have been doing a lot of work together. It’s been cool to see Frizza land all the humour without being able to rely on his physicality as he normally does. He sings the absolute balls off it. He hits every note and he’s got the sound and he can be cute when he wants to but he can also be bloody scary just by using his voice. It’s awesome.
Chris Welldon was Brian in Altona’s Avenue Q. Through the whole of Avenue Q he only got to touch a puppet once and now all he does is touch a puppet. He’s loving being able to figure out all the mechanics of the plant and finding new ways to make it play. He’s found some really nice character moments with the way he can move the plant. And both Chris and Frizza get to appear on stage as cameos in the first part of the show so they’ve loved that. But from ‘Closed for Renovations’ which is song number seven, Chris is inside that plant and he doesn’t get out.
There’s been a changing of the guard at Altona in recent times. I’m interested to know how the young committee are managing as far as production goes.
DH: I think when the changeover first happened it took them a while to find their feet. They knew how a show was to be run but most of them had never done it before. Over the last eighteen months they’ve really hit their stride and they really know what they’re doing now, they know how to do it and they know what works for them. From a technical standpoint they’ve been buying more and more gear as the shows have gone on so their lighting rig is much more impressive, with better quality gear. It the same with their sound equipment. Their sound operators are very talented. As a committee they’ve been really accommodating. And it’s not a complete changing of the guard. We’ve got Rick Howden building our set which the two of us designed and it’s everything I wanted, it’s functional and it works extremely well. And Greg Erwood is SM. Greg is the only common link between all three productions having SM’d both the 1993 and 2001 shows.
We all know and love The Little Shop of Horrors but I wanted to know why people should come and see this one.
DH: People should come because the cast really are amazing. I know as director it’s my job to say that but they are phenomenal. Every one of them has been exactly what I’ve been after and more. Vocally they are going to knock the walls down, especially the trio. I can’t wait for people to hear the trio for the first time. And I hope that maybe the intrigue of someone directing on their own for the first time will bring some people into the theatre. If audience members want to see a slightly different take on Little Shop, without it being different for different sake, come on down.
$25 each for groups of 10+
Book online at http://www.altonacitytheatre.com.au/shows/2011/little-shop-of-horrors or over the phone on
Friday 8th July, 8:00pm
Saturday 9th July, 8:00pm
Sunday 10th July, 2:00pm
Friday 15th July, 8:00pm
Saturday 16th July, 8:00pm
Sunday 17th July, 2:00pm
Thursday 21st July, 8:00pm
Friday 22nd July, 8:00pm
Saturday 23rd July, 8:00pm