I have been connected with the delicious spoof musical Little Shop of Horrors for a long, long time. I had clients in the first grand London production, in the film, and went on to cast the show on three continents. I even traipsed to Sheffield a couple of decades ago to see a production ...
So, when I saw that my local theatre had recovered (hopefully permanently) from its production of mediocre and scissors-and-paste musicals, and was preparing to give us this show, I called up my Mentor and said 'This year, I shall come'.
It's odd what we get served up here in Christchurch, NZ. Basically, there are three sources of musical theatre. (1) the professional Court Theatre (2) the amateurs who have, nowadays, taken upon themselves the name of Showbiz (3) the students, otherwise NASDA, who supply many of the best artists to (1) and (2).
Options recently? Well, the amdrams are part of a share-cost affair with other NZ amdrams, so we just get Big Famous Musicals of Recent decades. Been there, seen that, don't need to see it for a 20th time. But it's amdrams, so everyone has fun, everybody's friends buy tickets ... just as they did when I was an amdrammer in the 1960s.
The Professionals? I have lived near Christchurch for 20 years. I have not been overly impressed by the staging standards and especially the show-choices at the Court Theatre in recent years. Thus, I have not attended all that often.
The students .. ? Yessssss. This year we had The Drowsy Chaperone! (Hello, Court Theatre!). Previously, The Music Man, City of Angels, Spring Awakening, Once on this Island ...
When will the professional (subsidised) theatre catch up!!!!
End of lecture
OK. I went with mixed feelings. The production was promoted, with many photos, as being 'different'. I didn't want it to be 'different' ... I just wanted it to be GOOD.
Well, it was both. In fact, with a few reservations, I think it was, all in all, the most enjoyable Little Shop I've ever seen.
Different? Well, we don't have a lot of big, black-voiced jazz singers in Christchurch, so the part of Audrey II was remade around a large local lass (who was a lad last time I saw her) with airs of Divine. The idea and the performance came off splendidly for 9/10s of the show. It was grand to be able to see the plant's expressions and not just hear a disembodied voice.
Secondly, the piece was souped up a tad, with the three Skid Row girlies turned into a rather intrusive glamour backing-group with airs of the Supremes, jigging endlessly about to somewhat excessive choreography in very non-Skid Row costumes. But singing the theatre roof off!
Actually, I'm surprised the roof was still on. I think this was the loudest, most over-amplified show I've ever attended in my 60 plus years of theatre-going. Even the bar staff, in the wonderfully-decorated foyer (their menus headed 'Feed Me') confided in me 'it's awfully LOUD isn't it'. It was.
But, the triumph of the evening was in the core of the matter. Unobtrusive, clever, fresh direction (Benjamin Henson) and quite outstanding casting and performances.
I have seen most of the players before. Some come from NASDA, the local music-theatre school, with which I was periodically associated over the last quarter of a century. However, the knack lies in casting such performers correctly, and here that knack was a 100% winner.
Rutene Spooner was Seymour. I last saw him as Amos ('Mr Cellophane') in Chicago. He was the Seymour of one's dreams: just the right amount of naïveté and adorableness, and a triple threat (as befits a NASDA graduate!) with a ringing singing voice that he finally got to use to its full. A five gold star performance.
His Audrey was right up there with him. Monique Clementson had the role absolutely down to a T, teetering on her unsteady high heels on her way to her date with her nasty boyfriend, singing sweetly and gormlessly ... I didn't think anyone could equal the original Ellen Greene in this role. This lass did.
The nasty boyfriend was played by Roy Snow (Billy Flynn in Chicago). A Court musical wouldn't be a Court musical without Mr Snow, and I for one would feel robbed if he weren't in the cast. He was as superb as ever, toying with the over-the-topness of the role, and singing up a storm, although he suffered, as he suffocated, from the distortion of the over-amplification.
Way back when, when we were casting the three 'chorus girls', the auditions were short and sweet. Each postulant was made to sing, cold, the line 'Alarm goes off at seven'. Try it, it's not easy. Reminds me of my opera debut in Amahl and the Night Visitors. Umpteen bars rest, then come in bang on E ... (or was it E flat?).
Well, these three ladies (Ezra Williams, Kristin Paulse, Jane Leonard) would have surely passed the acid test. Once again, fine casting. If I prefer the trio as a 'backing group' rather than a 'fronting group', that's just me. Folks like a bit of conventional glam, even in Skid Row.
I think the first time I saw Jonathan Martin on the stage was indeed 20 years ago when he played Stine in NASDA's City of Angels. Tonight, he was a first-rate Mr Mushnik, sufficiently Jewish without stooping to Faginesque burlesque, and his song-and-dance-duet with Seymour got (rightly) the biggest applause of the night.
When Little Shop the musical was filmed, the producers wanted to feature the jazz singer Bertice Reading. But there is no role in the piece that Bertice could play. So they invented one that would give her a chance to Do A Number. I (her agent) thought it was a pretty poor number but anyway she did it, got her large fee and I got my 10% of said fee and hoped I'd heard the last of the Rocky Horror -esque 'Mean Green Mother from Outerspace'.
No such luck. It was exhumed as a vehicle for Ms Peeti and tacked on the end of the show as an anticlimactic sort of megamix, with the cast in vulgar pantomime costumes ... Such a shame ... after the perfect finale of Seymour and Audrey I disappearing, like Don Giovanni, into the depths of death ... and the (inaudible) final obituary, to have to sit through this bit of tasteless trumpery ...
I wish I'd left before it. Then I would have no hesitation in declaring the Court Little Shop my favourite ever. Turn the sound down by 30% (or 50%), obliterate the megamixup and its mean green mother ... and, yayyy. A first-rate evening in the theatre. See you again in two years.
Why two? Because the next musical is a jukebox affair and I don't do those. Hopefully the Court won't leave the gems of the ancient and modern musical to NASDA ...