The Hayes' hit indie production of the cult comedy musical is getting an encore at Roslyn Packer Theatre
NB This is Time Out Sydney's review of the March premiere season at the Hayes Theatre.
If you’ve experienced the Hayes at its best (Violet, Heathers, Dogfight, Miracle City, Sweet Charity), then you’ll know what it’s capable of. If not, then this is your chance: a great musical rarely performed in Australia; a great ensemble cast, of people who can act and sing and dance; brilliant design.
The clincher, as is always true at the Hayes, is the compressed energy of a big show in a small space, where the audience can almost touch the cast – or more importantly, the plant, which for this new production has been designed by local puppet theatre outfit Erth.
If you haven’t seen the film (the 1960 Corman film on which this 1982 musical was based; or the 1986 Frank Oz film that was based on the musical), the plot is about a geeky shop assistant who nurtures an exotic species of plant into full carnivorous strength, garnering fame, fortune and romance in the process – and losing some of his moral qualms.
Like any good b-grade film, there’s a more than just cheap thrills: there are two characters you can root for, a relationship that’s believable, and a representation of domestic violence and abuse that speaks to now.
The musical adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors was the baby of composer Alan Menken and the late playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman – who went on to prove their hit-making stripes on Disney’s Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. It’s a pastiche of 60s rock’n’roll and soul (with a sprinkling of Jewish folk music) and the lyrics are razor sharp, and funny.
The decision (by David and Lisa Campbell’s Luckiest Productions) to bring this particular musical to the Hayes is inspired in two key ways: firstly, it’s a show that has typically benefited from intimate quarters and suffered from bigger theatre spaces (exhibit A: the underwhelming 2003 Broadway revival); secondly, Sydney has the perfect company to create Audrey II: Erth Visual & Physical Inc., who specialise in puppet-lead children’s shows (most recently, Prehistoric Aquarium and Dinosaur Zoo). Erth’s Audrey design, which includes three separate models (small, big, fucking huge), is sublime; it’s fair to say their talents are wasted on anything less than a jive-talking homicidal alien plant.
The production team is spearheaded by director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth and musical director Andrew Worboys, whose 2014 production of Sweet Charity (also for Luckiest Productions) opened the Hayes Theatre, sold out, and was re-mounted at the Opera House. That show’s design team – Owen Phillips (set), Ross Graham (lighting), Tim Chappel (costumes) – have also been enlisted, and have something far more meaty to sink their teeth into with Little Shop: b-grade schlock-horror with lashings of camp potential. They deliver. It’s hard to know where to look, this show is so visually ‘sticky’ – not just gorgeous but thoughtfully detailed.
As with all shows, however, nothing works if the casting doesn’t – and Little Shop is arguably harder than most in that it calls for an actress who can live up to the legendary Ellen Greene (who made an indelible imprint on the character of Audrey, from the off-off-Broadway original onwards, extending to her role in the 1986 film) without copying her, and a leading man who can be convincingly schlubby (or vice versa) as Seymour Krelborn (played by Rick Moranis in the film). Esther Hannaford (King Kong; Miracle City) and Brent Hill (Once; Rock of Ages) are so perfect in the parts, one wonders whether the show was built around them in the first place.
But everyone on stage is excellent (we got chills when Angelique Cassimatis, one of the chorus ‘urchins’, launched into her solo), and part of the euphoria of the show is seeing something that outguns the big musicals at the Capitol, Theatre Royal or Lyric, in the intimacy of a 110-seat theatre. No talent, effort or attention to detail has been spared in this production, and with Matilda having just left the Lyric, and Little Shop starting this strong on a six-city tour, it might just be the musical to beat in 2016.