The Rocky Horror Show Is Freaky and Dirty Done Right

The setup

In the course of a reviewing career, there will inevitably be times when a critic needs to state her biases going into a show. She must let readers know, for example, that the play she's about to judge has never been a favorite of hers or that a certain genre just doesn't tickle her fancy.

This is one of those times. But in this instance, my bias lands firmly on the fan-girl-positive side of the fence.

DAMMIT, Janet...I love you! And you too, Frank N. Furter and Riff Raff and, okay, sure...even you, Brad.

My name is Jessica Goldman and I'm a Rocky Horror fan. The movie, that is. I've never actually seen it onstage despite the fact that's where it started, in 1973 — music, book and lyrics written by Richard O’Brien, who, along with his director friend Jim Sharman, later adapted it for the screen. But the movie...oh, the movie, with its smutty acid trip of a plot, rock and roll music, and a thrummingly naughty set of lyrics highlighting the decidedly alt-sci-fi sexual nature of the story! I first saw it in wide-eyed prepubescent secret, way too young for my parents to permit me an actual viewing. It was a pirated Betamax version, watched in the older kids’ basement, that got me hooked. As teens with unfettered access, we obsessively scrutinized the movie again and again to be sure we had the Time Warp moves down pat for our high school dances. In my young adult years, I proudly did my after-hours duty, dressing up in costume for the midnight sing-along showing, replete with toilet paper rolls to throw and umbrellas to unfurl at the appropriate time.

For me, nostalgia comes wrapped up in a big old sweet Transsexual Transylvanian package.

And my strong guess is that I'm not the only one. How many of us in attendance for opening night of Theatre Under the Stars' production of The Rocky Horror Show carry around our own fabulous memories of the movie and our time spent with it? I mean, c’mon, who among us hasn’t proudly taken just a jump to the left at a party or two? How many see a sparkly red pair of lips and fondly think of closing credits? You may not have as deeply woven a history with the movie as I do, but from my glance around the audience, my money's on the fact that the overwhelming majority of folks going to see this show have a good wallop of Rocky Horror in their blood.

The obvious challenge then becomes how to re-create that kitschy/risqué magic? How can it compare to our embedded experiences? Can it still make us pelvic-thrust to insanity all these many years later?

Heels on, fishnets up, the science fiction double feature is about to start.

The execution:

Let’s just get this out of the way right at the start. The plot of The Rocky Horror Show is beyond ridiculous. The thinly written and utterly improbable story of newly engaged prissy couple Brad and Janet, who are trying to get car help from a mad scientist/transvestite/murderous, lust-crazed sexual predator/alien who lives in a nearby castle with his minions, is…well…just awful. No pronouncements of homage to sci-fi B-movies can justify how truly bad it is.

But then no one comes to the cult phenomenon that is Rocky Horror to revel in plot. We come for the music first and foremost, and then to revisit over-the-top characters and, we hope, to get our own freak on by participating in the show to some extent.

So, with this in mind, let’s look at what the TUTS production, under the direction of Mitchell Greco, the musical direction of Stephen W. Jones and the choreography of Kristin Warren got right, where they came up short and how they surprised us.

In the "they got it right" column:

If the music is really the main attraction, then TUTS hit this one out of the park. With a loud but not too loud five-member orchestra set subtly atop the second story of the stage, and a cast with uniformly great pipes, the music pops and fizzes and satisfies on every level. Arrangements may be slightly altered from the soundtracks in our heads, but each number powers to its terrific climax and thankfully doesn’t cause us to Google songs at intermission/after the show in order to hear them sung/played the way we really wanted.

It’s hard not to remember the movie and realize, OMG! — that was Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick as Janet and Brad, the sexually repressed, nerdy couple corrupted by Frank in the show. But Scott Harrison as Brad and Connor Lyon as Janet go far in helping us to forget the past and concentrate on their (similar) portrayals of the roles. Smartly not trying to reinvent the wheel, they slip nicely into the characters we know and love (or hate…but more on that later) and convincingly belt out their repressed — but morphing into sex-crazed — arcs.

The ensemble in Rocky Horror (Brittany Halen, Michael Sylvester, Ragan Richardson, Ashley Lee, Steven Boyd Baker and Andrew Carson) is crucial to evoking the sinister/sexual feel of the whole thing, and this group rose to the occasion, no pun intended. From their slithering, sexy mingling in the audience pre-curtain to their always present and often funny moments onstage (a human car is one of their more humorous creations), this group is in it to add to the oddly risqué ambience as much as they can. They may not be the headliners, but the triumphantly dirty feel of the show must be credited to them.

Speaking of dirty, there is no successful Rocky Horror without unabashed lewdness. Any of you who recently tuned in to Fox TV’s relatively PG-rated version know of what I speak. This a story that needs to be naughty. That fully goes there. That doesn’t pearl-clutch, soften up or make nice. Rocky Horror is sex. Sex between a man and a woman. Sex between two men. Between alien and human and a beefy lab experiment. This is a story about the perils of being sexually repressed and the consequences of throwing your sexual morals to the wind. Thankfully, Grecco and his team are up to the task. We get lust and groping and some very nicely designed intercourse scenes, shadowed behind a scrim, but never apologetically shy. Special praise must go out for the inclusion here of a safe-sex message, told with fabulous humor among the hedonism.

In the "not so much” column:

Iconic performances are so hard to take on. I mean, can anyone displace Tim Curry in our minds as our ideal Frank? Pierre Alexandre certainly has a far stronger voice than Curry could muster, but voice alone does not perfect this character. Striking a tall, muscularly fit physique in his latex and fishnets, Alexandre is certainly an attractive choice for the scantily clad Frank. The diversity nod of casting the role with a person of color was also welcome. But for all his vocal prowess, Alexandre seems not quite comfortable in the role. Neither campy, sinister, sarcastic or lustful enough to really mesmerize us, he at times appears to be going through the motions. And once again, no pun intended, that’s a bit of a drag.

I’ll crunch these next two beefs into one paragraph, since I feel that one begets another. With its unimaginative, retro stage-on-stage setting and little else by way of actual design, Rocky Horror suffers from ho-hum visuals that leave its cast nowhere to go but in circles. The church where Brad proposed to Janet, the castle where Frank and his gang live, the lab where Rocky is made…they’re all generally the same set design save for a few props and pieces brought in. In each case, an outline of an art deco-ish stage commands the set, forcing the cast to play within it. Needing to have more movement from their cast, director Grecco and choreographer Warren throw them in a hamster wheel loop from the stage to the front row of the audience and back again, like an endless rodent wheel that plays out its effectiveness after one or two numbers.

Surprise! What we didn’t see coming:

Because the actual plot of Rocky Horror is such a mess, a brainy but cheekily dry-witted narrator is brought in to help us fill in the blanks as we move along. The narrator was a male in the movie version, but TUTS has cast this character as a female and aren’t we fortunate that it’s Susan Koozin who was picked. If a standout role in the production had to be chosen, it would easily be Koozin, despite the fact that she neither sings nor dances in the show. With her smoky-voiced, no-nonsense delivery, which gives us Time Warp dance moves like they're computer algorithms and chastises us to pay close attention when she feels us losing the thread, she is by far the most delightfully surprising bright spot of the production. Surprises like that are what we come to the theater for.

Finally, huge kudos must go to the production team for realizing that audience interaction is part of the culty fun of Rocky Horror. And kudos must also be given for the team’s realization that our interaction needs to be regulated. Right in the parking lot, signs warn us that all purses will be searched and that no outside materials will be allowed in the theater. After all, getting pelted by rolls of toilet paper or having our eyes poked out by umbrella prongs when we are 20 (and undoubtedly inebriated) at an after-hours movie house is not necessarily the experience we want in the theater.

To reconcile our need to participate with the show, TUTS has decided to sell a $5 prop bag complete with confetti, newspaper, rubber gloves, a flashlight, playing cards and toilet paper, all sized safely for use in the audience. A portion of the money from each bag sold goes to the TUTS Annual Fund, which helps support the company's educational programs. Does it take away from the rebellious, radical, fly-your-freak-flag throw-shit-at-the-screen movement that so many us loved about those midnight showings? Sure it does. But for those of us who are a little older now and don’t necessarily want to be soaked one-third of the way into the show, I’m okay with the watered-down but still fun version TUTS is offering.

Plus, no one is regulating our words. Folks were still shouting ‘Asshole’ and “Slut’ every time Brad’s and Janet’s name was mentioned. Politically correct? No. Not at all. Uncomfortable in this day and age..sure. But I hope for the most part, it was simply a throwback moment. We yell those things out of youthful exercise of voice rather than because those judgments hold weight for us anymore. At least I hope so!

The verdict

Since I started this review on a personal note, I’ll end on one. The marketing team at TUTS has been promoting Rocky Horror as a tonic to the actual "horror" that has been the election process this year. Come to the show, they said, and revel in our brand of craziness as opposed to that of the politicians.

Smart branding

But I will confess that after dealing with the roller coaster that has been the recent couple of days, the last thing I wanted to do was go out and see Rocky Horror – no matter how much I loved the musical.

I was wrong. Not that any of my concerns or worries or intellectual quandaries have somehow magically disappeared because of the show. They haven’t. But what this mostly delightful Rocky Horror production gives us is a two-hour respite where we all can simply revel in the "other."

Okay, it’s not exactly the positive "other" that TUTS said it was trying to gather under its wing with its new, more culturally inclusive programming. Let’s be honest — a psychopathic, narcissistic, libidinous cross-dresser is not exactly the diversity-positive role model TUTS promised the community. But try as I might, I have yet to see the transvestite or transgender community balk at this show. So maybe I’m just overly white-liberal-guilting here. Or not. I welcome anyone’s more educated and immersed feedback on this one.

Until then. Hot Patootie, bless my soul, this was an eve that touch-a touched me in enough right ways to matter.

The Rocky Horror Show continues through November 20 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For tickets call 713-558-8887 or visit $43-$93.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman