Can a rock musical based on a notorious low-budget movie seriously invoke the legend of Faust? Apparently so. Little Shop of Horrors started as a 1960 horror comedy, The Little Shop of Horrors, directed by B-movie legend Roger Corman (it was allegedly shot in two days and a night). In 1982 Howard Ashman and Alan Menken - later to win Oscars for their work on such Disney films as Beauty and the Beast - adapted it into a long-running, award-winning off-Broadway musical that was itself filmed in 1986.
Orphaned Seymour Krelborn (played by Will Huang) is taken in by Mr Mushnik (Ian Croker), owner of a plant shop on Skid Row in New York, and grows up working for him.
Huang says, ''He's pretty close to slave labour.''
Seymour has developed an interest in unusual plants and one day comes upon a particularly exotic specimen. He names it Audrey II, after his colleague Audrey (Kelly Roberts), on whom he secretly has a crush. But he doesn't think she would be interested in him and she, too, thinks she is unworthy of him; she is the abused girlfriend of Orin (Zack Drury), a sadistic dentist who is also a motorcycle-riding greaser.
Audrey II gets sick and Seymour discovers the only way to make it healthy: human blood.
As Audrey II grows (and grows: there will be four Audrey II models to represent the plant's constant growth, with Amy Dunham as puppeteer and Adrian Flor as the voice) it becomes a tourist attraction and business in the flower shop booms.
But Seymour can't get enough blood from cutting his finger to quell the plant's incessant cries - only to him - for more. If Seymour is to become rich and successful, an alternative supply must be found.
Huang has been acting in Canberra since 1997 and won a Canberra Area Theatre Award for his featured role in Avenue Q. This is his first lead role.
''It's such a fun musical, although it's really quite black, with dark humour,'' he says.
He thinks people will sympathise with Seymour even when he is tempted to do terrible things.
If the nerdy Seymour is not a typical hero, Audrey isn't a typical heroine, either. Roberts, an American now living in Canberra, in her third show here, says, ''She's timid and almost fragile … she starts as a stereotypical dumb blonde, who's in an abusive relationship.''
But a different side emerges as her bond with Seymour deepens.
Little Shop of Horrors was the first non-pantomime play in which Ron Dowd performed.
Now he has stepped off stage to direct the show. He especially likes the score, a pastiche of late 1950s-early 1960s styles such as doo-wop, calypso and torch songs, and the schlock-horror setting.
First-time musical director Jason Henderson brings a lot of musical experience in both Melbourne and Canberra to his job, leading a 10-piece band to perform the augmented 2003 version of the score. ''It has a lot more colour than it used to,'' Henderson says.
Dowd wanted to try things a little differently from how he had seen them done. He wanted a more realistic feeling than the Skid Row setting and to pull back Orin's abusiveness towards Audrey, having it simmer and Audrey react rather than ''him raising his fist every 30 seconds''.
He also wanted a relatively modest scale to the production.
''I wanted to bring it back to the original cast size - eight people and three pit singers … Zack gets to do seven characters and they all need to be different … one is female.''
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
Directed by Ron Dowd. Canberra Philharmonic Society. Erindale Theatre, October 17-November 2. Tickets $25-$45. Bookings: www.philo.org.au/ticketing or 6257 1950.
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