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FULL POTENTIAL YET TO EXPLODE

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Photo: Michael Smith
Photo: Michael Smith
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
By Alan Menken and Howard Ashman
Based on the film by Roger Corman; screenplay by Charles Griffith
Director: Simon Coleman
Musical Director: Jason Te Mete
Choreographer: Sandra Rasmussen

at Q Theatre, 305 Queen St, Auckland
From 1 Nov 2012 to 1 Dec 2012

Reviewed by Nik Smythe, 4 Nov 2012


Mounting a production of such a beloved cult classic musical is a double-edged sword it seems.  A good amount of the promotional work has already been done, and a proportion of any given audience will already be primed to hum/sing/toe-tap along with the cast in the tested-and-approved musical numbers, and to chuckle or laugh out loud with the ingenious script.

Consequently however, these inevitably built-up expectations can carry major pitfalls.  A new production could either be too derivative of, and/or fail to match the magnificence of the beloved iconic precedents.  Anyone who's seen the brilliant classic 1986 Frank Oz-directed motion picture (and who hasn't?) would agree that virtually every performance in it is a hard act to follow.

I can't speak for ATC's version from a first-time layman's perspective as I am indeed a big fan of not only the film, but of the whole colourful history of the work stemming from Roger Corman's legendary B-grade 1960 comedy horror.  In any case, it tends to be the kind of show that, once you've watched it you want to see again even more than you did before you had.  Like a Greek tragedy, the intrigue is less in the story than in the telling of it.

Tim Carlsen's intrepid depiction of lead wimp Seymour Krelborn takes the pathetic, clumsy archetype fully by the horn-rimmed glasses.  His inferiority complex is only exceeded by that of his unrequited love interest Audrey, to whom Colleen Davis similarly brings great heart and hilarity, not to mention extraordinary vocal power.  Paul Barrett completes the fundamental triangle with his superbly long-suffering failed-then-flourishing florist Mr. Mushnik, complete with shaggy grey Einstein-hair. 

Andrew Grainger does a great job with an eclectic array of incidental characters, but falls short in what is arguably the character most loaded with expectation thanks to Steve Martin: Orin Scrivello, better known to fans as ‘the Dentist'.  The character is loathsomely menacing enough, but his strange enunciation is distracting in the chorus of his signature song Dentist! – namely pausing in the middle of the word ‘dentist', making it hard to discern as well as dragging the musical impetus.

Also filling various ensemble roles with aplomb, Rima Te Wiata and Kyle Chuen cogently synch their estimable skills, respectively vocalising and puppeteering the villainous, badass funkmeister of a space-vegetable Audrey II, as she/it is not-too-subtly named by its discoverer Seymour. 

The soundtrack's harmonic backbone is outstandingly exemplified in the sassy attitudes and soulful wailings of Bella Kalolo, Rosita Vai and Bronwyn Turei as street-urchin chorus girls Crystal, Chiffon and Ronette. 

The musical composition of Alan Menken is naturally quintessential to the success of the franchise, as of course are Howard Ashman's comical script and accomplished lyrics, like Seymour's wistful lament: “I keep asking God what I'm for / He tells me, ‘gee, I'm not sure.'”

Most of the essential components that make the success of this kind of production are present, but something in Simon Coleman's direction seems to hold the performance back from reaching its explosive potential, which we really only glimpsed on opening night.  The energy and strength brought by the sterling efforts of the cast are undermined somewhat by noticeably anti-climactic moments.

One conspicuously sparing element is Sandra Rasmussen's rudimentary-at-best choreography.  Whether her decision or Coleman's, its strange that more advantage is not taken of the boogie-woogie rhythms in the more danceable pieces.  

To some degree the cast manages to appear and sound greater than the sum of its nine parts, particularly in the set-piece Skid Row/Downtown.  Likewise the instrumental chops of the accompanying four-piece band led by musical director Jason Te Mete; actually it would be nice if the band were more visible than they are, hidden behind Tracey Collins' monolithic, movable backdrop.

As far as vocal comprehension goes, the only two characters I could consistently understand were Audrey (the woman, not the plant) and Mushnik. The chorus girls certainly bring great lung power to their roles and are the next most intelligible, whilst Seymour and Audrey II's words are often lost, particularly in the speedier, more verbose numbers such as Feed Me (Git it)

Tracey Collins towering grey oblong-heavy set design, with about 30 windows of varying sizes and quadrangular shapes, efficiently evokes the oppressively depressive ghetto of Skid Row, somewhere in a forgotten back-alley of the bowels of downtown New York City. 

Brad Gledhill's lighting design provides a number of dynamic visual features, from the opening laser-lights to the abstract gobos, messily splashed like so much urban trash across the set to symbolise street signs, shop clocks and other assorted atmospheric images. 

As for Elizabeth Whiting's conservatively ostentatious costume design, the 60s era is sufficiently represented in the cuts and colour combo of Seymour's pastel peach and yellow, Audrey's hot pink and Mushnik's muted purple.  Meanwhile the chorus girls' frocks alternate between colourful, busily screen-printed street-wear and the lurid green plant-suits they sport while giving back-up vocal support to Audrey II.

Not specifically credited, I presume the look of the plant must also be part of Collins' set design (?).  If there's always been any potential for a Freudian interpretation of the Audrey II character, this example leaves nothing to question.  Bulbous and pink (with green extremities), the vertical mouth could hardly be more yonic except maybe if it had a Brazilian, while the globular dangly bits are inescapably testicular. 

I'm unsure whether this determinedly genital appearance can be explained with any convincing relevance to the subtext of the story; nonetheless the inflatable rubber puppets, variously sized from a small pot plant to an enormous vege-monster, are appealing and impressive enough to constitute a popular talking point, if slightly limited in mobility.

The opening night audience was consistently entertained throughout the two-hours plus, culminating in respectably sincere applause at the curtain call.  The appealing elements of ATC's presentation outweigh the shortcomings, but one feels that in a show of this nature the energy should build to a hysterical, frenzied ovation, rather than the comparatively polite one it received. 

One hopes the overall power will improve during the season as the company finds their optimum levels. 
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See also reviews by:
 Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);
 Matt Baker (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);