On first impressions a musical about a flesh-eating plant with a penchant for blood may not be to everybody's taste. Judging by the opening night audience's reactions to Canberra Philharmonic's production of Little Shop of Horrors, they devoured every tasty morsel of director, Ron Dowd's edgy and spicy staging of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's tongue-in-cheek spoof on B Grade horror movies and sugary musicals.
The plot is easy enough to digest. Self-confessed nerd, Seymour (Will Huang) works for struggling Yiddish florist Mr Mushnik (Ian Croker). He is in love with ditzy colleague, Audrey (Kelly Roberts), who is emotionally and physically abused by her boyfriend, the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello (Zack Drury). One day, Seymour buys a strange plant from a Chinese florist, and soon falls victim to Audrey II's rather gluttonous and ghoulish demands for food of a very different flavour. What follows is a moralistic tale of consequence. As Mushnik's store on Skidrow flourishes, so too does Audrey II's voracious appetite as it blooms and grows at the hands of puppeteer, Amy Dunham and the voice of Adrian Flor. Seymour's dilemma is a recipe for drastic measures.
Dowd's direction gives this production bite. Set designer, Peter Karmel's downtown tenement facade gives Skidrow a gritty aspect that contrasts with Mushnik's sweetly toned florist shop. Angel Dolesji's sexy, brazen opening choreography gives the production a distinctive New York flavour, which permeates the production through the Urchins with attitude, Crystal (Isabelle Bangard), Ronete (Kate Graham) and Chiffon (Mechelle Tully), an Eastside streetwise chorus with a touch of Motown, Rock and Supremes). It is the detail in the setting that lends this production an air of authenticity with the changing clock times, the progressively wilting flowers and the looming growth of the insatiable Audrey II.
Originally written for off-Broadway, Little Shop of Horrors' appeal is in its conciseness. On the expansive Erindale stage, and dominated by Karmel's impressive street scene, the action at times created a split focus and subsequent distraction, and sound amplification distorted the clarity of Ashman's clever lyrics, particularly in the Urchins' numbers.
A consequence of returning to the small cast size for this production is that Dowd has cast outstanding musical theatre performers in the key roles. Huang and Roberts combine song and character with consummate professionalism, and idiosyncratic actor Croker delights in caricaturing the Yiddish florist for maximum comic effect. Drury revels in the bullish antics of the demoniacal dentist with a talent for causing pain, while also relishing a number of other roles. Here is a tight ensemble, adroitly directed by Dowd and skilfully supported by musical director Jason Henderson and his orchestra.
This tender love story, condemned to an all-consuming fate, offers some digestible food for thought, but, more than that, in the hands of the team at Canberra Philharmonic it is a night of sheer entertainment and fun.