The highest compliment New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr ever delivers from his arsenal of accolades is to proclaim that a performer or a production “corrupts us with pleasure.” For 90% of its running time, the AllWays Lounge revival of The Rocky Horror Show had me weaker with ecstasy than anything since the opening scenes of Tulane Summer Lyric’s A Chorus Line.
Which is, of course, exactly what Richard O’Brien designed his downtown warhorse to do. “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure,” sings transvestite mad scientist Dr Frank-N-Furter in the anthem, “Don’t Dream It, Be It”.
So why is this show typically a complete chore rather than any sort of pleasure?Because it’s done too often, by theatermakers with no ambition larger than to reproduce the no-longer-daring pleasures of a movie that blew their brains open when they were kids.
I’ll assume your familiarity with the basics of tight-assed young Brad and Janet’s long transformative night ‘over at the Frankenstein place’ after their car breaks down during a storm. Not only is The Rocky Horror Show a longtime entry in what I call the permanent culture, it gets revived around these parts at least once a year. At least. I was no more thrilled to see it remounted than I would be at another run-through of The Vagina Monologues.
Rocky is directed by AllWays impresario Dennis Monn, in a major return to form after a two-year hiatus since Sweeney Todd. His staging is replete with joyous crackerjack prizes –a watering can downpour, a boss hog for Eddie’s entrance, remarkably flexible legs popping from under the sheets during the seduction of the young couple. With a signature style inspired by, and now virtually synonymous with our “downtown” arts scene, Monn replaces the glam look of the ‘70s original with a homegrown fabulosity that owes everything to sideshow, burlesque, queercore, and krusties. So everything old is new, again.
Beyond that Monn makes at least three very smart choices. He frees the role of the Narrator from its pompous-old-man-in-an-armchair model and hands it to the utterly charming genderfuck performer Neon Burgundy. Neon is, also smartly, the only performer allowed to wink at the action and make sardonic remarks about it. Instead of the usual musclebound blond, he casts as Rocky, Frank-N-Furter’s boytoy of a monster, a tall, stunning black man, Lester Desaster. The decision instantly makes the show transgressive again. Since Rocky comes to life not dumb and childlike but just as knowingly licentious as the castle’s other habitués, is yet saved from Mandingo offensiveness.
And, he frickin’ ignores the frickin’ movie version.
Ignores it, that is, in all important regards save one. Like Brando as Stanley, Tim Curry as Frank-N-Furter is indelible. An actor can’t attempt a different interpretation of the sweet transvestite without audiences feeling betrayed, yet can’t use Curry’s approach without being found wanting. It’s a Kobayashi Maru test for actors who assay the role.
Unless you’re Mac Taylor, whom I’ve never seen before and can’t wait to see again. In a performance for which I can think of no antecedent, Taylor does follow Curry’s lead, down to the whore-red lipstick and cocked eyebrow, yet still makes the role his own, somehow summoning no encroaching long shadow. I’d have thought it impossible to ennoble mimicry to originality. Edged with more melancholy than Curry – and in such a campy show – Taylor makes his final number, “I’m Going Home”, unnervingly sad.
Everybody else, playing roles not so iconically stamped, is free to spin fresh variations. Owen Ever in particular offers something both new and locally apt: the naïve virgin as wannabe hipster. It’s amusing as hell to see Brad played as if he just pulled into the latest hotspot and can’t for the life of him figure out how to wangle an invite to the afterparty. And Ever invigorates one of the show’s most ignored songs, “Once in Awhile”, making it almost as strong as “I’m Going Home”.
Big-voiced Renee Anderson offers a ripe Kewpie doll of a Janet – if the good doctor didn’t seduce her, someone soon would – and kills with the famous “Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me”. GoGo McGregor demonstrates comic flair as Columbia, not usually one of the funnier characters. I hope this burlesque queen does more ‘straight plays’ soon. Lydia Stein as Magenta is – sorry if this sounds condescending – flat-out gorgeous. Magenta sings “Science Fiction”, the opening number usually given to Trixie (a character here cut) in a solo spotlight. After a wobbly bar or two, Stein’s shimmering voice unites with her shimmering looks to make me think, briefly, that I was uptown, not downtown.
Ratty Scurvics, another of the show’s stronger singers, infuses Riff Raff with even more self-loathing weirdo yearning than O’Brien himself did. (It still fascinates that the playwright had his stand-in character leveling in the last ten minutes everything he’d elevated in the previous ninety. Talk about entwined impulses to create to and to destroy.) Thugsy DaClown does, well, everything that can be done with the where’d-this-deus-ex-machina-come-from role of Dr Scott, and dances like a man possessed.
Ainslie Matich does a precision job as musical director. The band cooks without overwhelming the singers, as so often happens given the varying vocal prowess in storefront musicals.
Here’s the paragraph of quibbles:
It’s quite weird that the choreography of “Time Warp” has nothing to do with the song, since the steps are right there in the chorus. The smoke machine is poorly deployed, frequently overpowering the lights and rendering scenes invisible, including most of one song. (It seems very much a case of “We’ve got a smoke machine, let’s use it.”) Monn as Eddie doesn’t sing nearly as well as he directs (except when he’s shouting the chorus) but brings the right fist-pumping energy to “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?” Janet’s costuming pre- and post-deflowering does too little to delineate the changes she’s seen, and is too motley-busy at both ends. It’s also a mistake to leave Rocky seated against the far wall while she writhes hither and yon singing “Touch Me” to him, or anyway in his general direction; it turns the number into a paean to masturbation. Rocky’s first entrance is way underplayed, especially since Desaster pulls double duty behind the bar: Without his gold short-shorts, it would’ve taken me even longer to register that this was Rocky. Scurvics overuses the finger-crooked-in-mouth gesture to indicate Riff Raff’s prurience, making it a tic instead of a grace note. And the crew oughtn’t nudzh the audience to shout comments at the stage as fans of the film do at the screen – “Asshole!” when Brad’s name comes up, “Slut!” for Janet, and so on. If viewers generate these so-called “participatory” responses on their own, okay. But watching actors live is a very different experience, the all-over-the-lounge staging is participatory enough and, most important, this Rocky Horror Show is its own thing, owing little to the movie.
There’s the main point. This is its own glorious thing. Like the otherwise couldn’t-be-more-different NOLA Project staging of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the AllWays’ Rocky Horror Show is an act of cultural reclamation. Monn and his peeps retrieve an exhausted, overly familiar piece of work and make it powerful and moving once again. It can awaken that lonely pubescent geek, gazing slack-jawed and wide-eyed at the fabulousness that is possible, who lies dormant (or not so dormant) within all of us.