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Theater Review: The Rocky Horror Show


The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a rite of passage in the 1970s and '80s. At some point during high school or college, most of us braved a midnight showing or two -- or 200 -- of the campy cult classic, and were initiated into the deliciously subversive world of transvestites from the planet Transsex-ual in the galaxy Transylvania. Look around you. That sedate Soccer Dad from Accounts Receivable may have once dressed in Dr. Frank N. Furter's fishnets.

The 1975 film performances were iconic: the seductive and sneering Tim Curry, as Frank, in a corset and heels; ultra-geeky Barry Bostwick, as Brad, in his tighty whities; and virgin-on-the-verge Susan Sarandon, as Janet, in a half-slip. But before Rocky Horror was a movie, it was a play. British actor Richard O'Brien, who wrote the show and played Riff Raff on stage and in the film, scheduled the original 1973 run -- in a tiny London theater -- for five weeks; he thought "we would have exhausted the potential audience" after that.

It moved to a succession of larger houses, and ran for seven years.

Since then, professional productions of The Rocky Horror Show have taken the stage around the world, translated into languages such as Icelandic and Spanish. With amateur performance rights available only since 2000, the show is just now becoming part of the community theater repertoire. The Barre Players earnestly embraced Rocky's spirit of joyous decadence, but the production was hardly smooth.

The plot of Rocky Horror is part parody of, and part homage to, the golden age of Hollywood's B-movies: a mad scientist, a clueless heroine-in-peril, the guilty butler, aliens, melodramatic subplots and splashy song-and-dance numbers breaking out left and right. Add hints of cannibalism and incest, and heaps of naughty lingerie and sex -- what's not to love?

The action begins on the de rigeur dark and stormy night. Newly engaged couple Brad and Janet's car breaks down, and they head to the nearest spooky castle to find a phone. Hunchbacked butler Riff Raff's invitation to the couple to "come inside" foreshadows much "coming" that will go on inside the castle that night. The uptight pair is soon stripped of most of their clothing -- and later, many of their inhibitions.

Dr. Frank N. Furter, cross-dressing master of the manor, presides over the motley household with a fearsome demeanor and an apparent lack of access to mood-stabilizing pharmaceuticals. He brings Brad and Janet up to his lab for the unveiling of his newest creation. Frank has made Rocky to be his perfect boy-toy: a blond, tan, muscle-man with half a brain. The hitch? Rocky's libido hasn't been controlled.

A frenzied night of gender-blending bed-hopping ensues, bringing to a head (so to speak) the failure of Frank's mission on earth, in the opinion of his extraterrestial bosses. The ending isn't pretty -- although the final floor show is -- and Brad and Janet stumble away from the castle with their black corsets and sexual liberation awkwardly concealed beneath their now-rumpled country-club clothes.

A key aspect of the Rocky Horror experience is audience participation, which first evolved at the rowdy midnight movie screenings. The crowd hurls insults, witticisms and props before or after certain lines of dialogue.

The Barre Players delightfully encouraged this practice with a $3 "Virgin Survival Kit" -- in the Rocky realm, a "virgin" is a first-time showgoer. It contained detailed instructions on "Rocky Etiquette," an Arthur Murray-esque diagram of the "Time Warp" dance, and instructions for proper use of the included items. Before the opening curtain in the dignified Barre Opera House, diligent attendees read aloud directions on what to do with the carefully folded sheet of newspaper, mini-roll of toilet paper, rubber glove, tiny flashlight, playing cards and bag of confetti. Time warp, indeed -- I don't remember any handy pamphlets for Rocky deflowerings circa 1980!

To ensure a healthy dose of snappy comebacks, the Players also planted a few audience participants who knew what to say and when to say it. Although regional variations and topical references have always occurred, the Barre crew had clearly scripted some new lines. For example, when Riff Raff asks Brad and Janet to "Come inside," the customary response is, "Better than coming outside!" The substitute line: "That's not safe sex!" Less raunchy, more 21st century.

One of the strongest aspects of the Barre production was the terrific band. Music director Jason Pierce conducted a stellar five-piece combo, highlighted by Matt Clancy's swinging saxophone and Michael Poczobut's jazzy keyboards. Unfortunately, the Opera House lacks a sunken orchestra pit. The volume produced by musicians playing at floor level condemned the actors to the Curse of the Wireless Body Microphones.

Body mikes never work flawlessly, even for seasoned pros. On opening night, they caused occasional bursts of static, and more disruptive episodes where the sound dropped out entirely. A bigger problem was that while mikes allowed the lead singers to project well over the band, the unmiked chorus of Transylvanians went largely unheard. When audible, their harmonies sounded strong and focused, so it was a shame to lose so much of their singing.

The biggest problem with the audio set-up was that singers seemed to lack what they needed in order to hear themselves adequately. Performers who sounded fine in some numbers veered badly off-key in others, resulting in some pitchy and patchy vocal performances.

While the singing sometimes suffered, the acting did not. The leads distilled the essence of camp: a tasty mix of deadpan humor and over-the-top zest. As the hot dog Dr. Frank N. Furter, Joseph Grabon simpered, scowled and sashayed commandingly from the teetering height of shiny 6-inch platform heels. His parallel seduction scenes, bedding first Janet and then Brad, were priceless vignettes of hilarious lasciviousness.

As Brad, Rick Young embodied the ultimate dork. So his transformation from white Hanes to hot black lace for the "Floor Show" finale was the evening's funniest. Maggie Ferreira charmingly channeled Janet's faux-'50s innocence: sweet on the outside, untamed on the inside. As Riff Raff, Tom Jacques conjured a heap of creepiness. As his sister Magenta, Alana Manning played the sly and sexy servant always in the know.

Grabon, Ferreira and Manning overcame the technical challenges to sing with consistent strength. Grabon's voice had a warm, mellow quality -- almost soulful -- that lent a softer, endearing side to Frank's character. Ferreira matched her tone to Janet's personality: pure and naive, for example, in the early "Over at the Frankenstein Place." Manning sang powerfully as Magenta, and also shone in the more demure role of the Usherette, sweetly singing "Science Fiction" (famously intoned in the movie by the giant pair of red lips) to open and close the show.

Two additional factors proved incongruous with the actors' energy: the unimaginative set design and the Transylvanians' drab, sack-like costuming. Director Alex Koch and his team failed to use these key visual elements to reinforce the fun, flair and outre sex appeal quotients. To be fair, however, Koch is a sophomore at Spaulding High School; legally, he probably shouldn't know too much about the outlandish and the outre!

Despite these shortcomings, the audience had fun, and it was great to see so many Rocky neophytes fall for the show's wayward charm. Elements that once seemed so daring -- cross-dressing, bisexuality, a gay wedding -- are now almost commonplace. What remains risque is its message to look beneath the surface -- of yourself and of the person next to you -- to discover what is hidden.