Musicals, News & Commentary, Stage

Little Shop of Horrors: finding a voice for a man-eating plant

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At the centre of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s 1982 cult hit musical Little Shop of Horrors is Audrey II, a ferocious, talking, singing, man-eating plant who corrupts the meek, geeky flower shop assistant Seymour. But director Dean Bryant’s production of the show, which opens at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre tonight, finds an even more intriguing and dangerous side to Audrey II.
As in most productions, the plant will be brought to life by a series of onstage puppets. Usually the voice for Audrey II is supplied by an offstage soul singer, but in Bryant’s production, Brent Hill, the actor who plays Seymour, will also voice the plant while on stage.
“It’s a massive challenge,” Hill says. “We did a workshop many months ago to work it out. We discussed what it meant for the show, and what it meant for the origin of the plant.”
So does it mean that the plant has taken on a part of Seymour? Is the plant a kind of alter ego for him? Or is the plant actually just a plant, and Seymour has hallucinated its personification?
“It’s open for interpretation,” Hill says. “But I think we wanted to get away from the idea that the plant isn’t actually real. That wouldn’t be right for the show.”
And, in any case, the effect is proving so subtle that it’s taken many audience members quite a while to realise that Hill is providing both voices. Singer-songwriter Delta Goodrem was in the audience for one preview and didn’t notice until intermission, whereas another audience member never picked up on it.
That’s largely because while Hill is on stage, he maintains the physicality of the shy, introverted Seymour even while performing the wild, raucous, soulful voice of Audrey II.
“It’s like splitting your brain to try, on one side, to be truthful to what the plant wants and then, on the other side, Seymour’s physicality,” Hill says. “And I also have to be listening to that voice as Seymour. So I’m physically listening to the voice that I’m providing; it’s very tricky.”
It’s a fairly substantial reinvention for the musical (and there are a few other surprises in there) but director Dean Bryant says things haven’t been changed as radically as they were in his award-winning production of Sweet Charity, which opened the Hayes Theatre at the beginning of 2014. Little Shop of Horrors sees him reunite with the Sweet Charity creative team: choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, musical director Andrew Worboys, Academy Award-winning costume designer Tim Chappel, set designer Owen Phillips, and lighting designer Ross Graham.
“Essentially what we did to Sweet Charity is apply a dramaturg to it, and make it faster and funnier,” Bryant says. “We did a lot of work on the writing of the show, whereas Little Shop is watertight — there’s not a line of dialogue or a song which doesn’t work entirely. Where the reinvention comes is going ‘imagine if I got handed this script, without having seen any other versions, how would I approach building it?'”
Bryant says he doesn’t feel too much pressure to live up to the standard set by Sweet Charity because he believes the excitement which that show generated was as much about what it represented as it was about the quality of the production.
“It was the beginning of the Hayes, and at the time it could have been nothing. It could’ve just been another nice theatre, churning out ho-hum work.”
The puppets for this production have been designed by Erth, a Sydney-based company which specialises in large-scale puppets, and is currently best known for its award-winning children show Dinosaur Zoo. 
There are three main Audrey II puppets, as the plant grows in size (the one pictured above is only the middle-sized puppet).
“We spent a lot of time talking about what we wanted it to be able to do, rather than specifically what plant it would be,” Bryant says. “We went very much for a scary plant — a plant that’s androgynous, a plant that looks like a B-movie villain, a plant that can strike and attack, and not just sit there and wait for you to come to it.”
But no professional puppeteers from Erth are performing as part of the production — the puppets are manipulated by the cast. Dash Kruck is the main puppeteer, but in the second act, when Audrey II takes over most of the stage, every cast member not on stage helps to operate the gigantic puppet.
Another big part of bringing Audrey II to life lies in the ability of the actors on stage to respond to the plant like it’s a real, living, breathing creature. Hill has a lot of stage time with the plant, and Esther Hannaford, who plays his love interest Audrey (after whom Audrey II is named) has plenty of experience working with massive puppets.
Hannaford spent nine months playing Ann Darrow in the multi-million dollar stage musical King Kong, opposite a six-metre tall animatronic silverback.
“I really enjoy working with these kinds of puppets because it’s such a team effort,” she says. “Every movement that the puppet makes is eight people all making that movement at the one time.”
The biggest challenge for Hannaford is making the role her own. Ellen Greene’s idiosyncratic performance as Audrey in the original Off Broadway production and the 1986 film has become one of the most iconic musical theatre performances of the last few decades.
“It’s a bit terrifying,” Hannaford says. “I grew up watching the movie and I’ve seen a lot of her work.”
Hannaford says she wants to honour Greene’s performance, but has gone back to the script, which mentions Fay Wray, Judy Holliday, Carol Channing, Marilyn Monroe and Goldie Hawn when describing Audrey. If you took those women and “shook them up in a test tube to extract what’s sweetest and most vulnerable”, you would have Audrey.
According to Bryant, Audrey II is just one element of a multifaceted show, and the heart and soul of the musical has to come back to the actors playing Audrey and Seymour and the songs by Ashman and Menken (who would go on to work together on Disney films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin in the years following Little Shop).
The Rocky Horror Show, for example, has that same kind of cult, campy, sci-fi with great tunes, but you never get emotionally invested, whereas people totally do in Audrey and Seymour,” Bryant says.
“Plus, I’m still listening to the tunes on my iPhone while walking to work. I’ve known that score back to front since I was 15 years old. But if I can still listen to the songs over and over again, you know they really stand up.”
[box]Little Shop of Horrors is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until March 19, and then tours to Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth.
Images by Jeff Busby[/box]

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