Triffically Entertaining [by Matt Baker]
Anyone who has an appreciation of ‘60s doo-wop or classic musical theatre will be entertained by ATC’s production of Little Shop of Horrors, because it is the musical talent that not only carries this show, but gives it some emotional depth and journey. While the entire creative team jointly recognises and illustrates their influences and intentions both in the programme and on stage, the clearest, strongest, and most unique creative voice comes from musical director Jason Te Mete. As always, simplicity proves to be the key with Te Mete containing the orchestration to a 4-piece band consisting of himself (piano), Tyson Smith (guitar), Robert Drage (bass), and Andrew Rooney (drums).
Sandra Rasmussen’s choreography acknowledges that this show does not require triple-threat talent, but nevertheless gives the actors some range to tell the story within the space provided. Director Simon Coleman evidently has an overall vision for the show, and while everyone involved clearly understands it, and the totality of the production is overwhelmingly extravagant not to mention entertaining, there is a lack of subtlety in some of the story’s simpler moments.
The wall-to-wall ceiling-to-floor backdrop by Tracey Collins has a grand scale feel and cool finish, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the atmosphere of skid row, but adds to the production’s overall shine. Lighting designer Brad Gledhill incorporates an array of blasting colours and spots in the livelier scenes, which add to the show’s gloss, as well as subtle tones as required in the more intimate moments. Elizabeth Whiting is given every chance to display her ingenious costume design skills, from the Triffid/Poison-Ivy street urchins in their narrative roles, to Andrew Grainger’s apparatus and quick changes.
Bella Kalolo, Rosita Vai, and Brownwyn Turei are an absolute powerhouse of a vocal trio. Both Tim Carlsen and Colleen Davis find apt vocal and physical portrayals for their characters, and carry the show well together. Davis in particular finds a wonderful range of emotion in both her Somewhere That’s Green and Suddenly Seymour. Veteran musical-thespian Paul Barrett proves his mastery of the craft with pleasingly precise and dutifully diligent comedic and musical timing, especially in Mushnik and Son.
Grainger, while unquestionably committed to his role, plays a Steve Martin photocopy, which, while he adopts with great accuracy, makes him seem miscast due to the obvious difference in build and age combined. Grainger gets to show off his versatility and further comedic talents with a variety of roles in The Meek Shall Inherit, but by this point the second act has lost momentum and it feels that the show can only rely on the gags to get through to the finale.
Ultimately, it is the design and application of Audrey II that can make or break a production of Little Shop, and, while the grandeur and inflatable design is both effective and allows for great theatrical practicality, the lack of the Venus Flytrap muzzle results in the on-stage deaths looking like reverse cow-births… At least the lack of teeth saves the audience from a visual representation of vagina dentata. Consequently, Kyle Chuen, whose powerful pipes are put to good use with his ensemble vocal work, is belittlingly limited in his role as puppeteer. The final, and unquestionably most important component of Audrey II is the voice, and while Rima Te Wiata has the vocal ability to carry the role the femininity lacks authority and danger, without which the external motivation beyond Seymour’s inner turmoil is weakened, if not, lost.
Theatre in New Zealand is often the object of intentionally unconventional casting for reasons that are not necessarily grounded in artistic enterprise, and I fail to see why Audrey II fell victim to cross-gender casting both vocally and physically. It certainly doesn’t break the show, but the limited puppetry and movement in particular holds Audrey II back from being a fully physically engaging and animate character as opposed to a plot device or gimmick. Style over substance is the overall feel, with the exception of both the musical and vocal talent. In saying that, the style is very slick, particularly by New Zealand standards.
There is a naturally heightened style to musical theatre, but it nonetheless must be justified. While the first impression of Little Shop is a successful spectacle, later reflection notes the lack of total emotional poignancy that a musical has the ability to generate. While this horror-comedy had me laughing out loud at times, the real horror was that aside from a finely layered dramatic irony built up by Barrett, I never really cared about the characters’ fates. Though I was thoroughly entertained throughout.
Little Shop of Horrors is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at Q until 2nd December. Details see Q.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe