Regional Reviews: Seattle
The Rocky Horror Show at The 5th Avenue
Also see David's review of Homebody/Kabul
Reuniting many cast members from its 2001 production of Hair, the 5th Avenue is hoping lightning will strike twice (appropriately as the action takes place on a dark and stormy night at a creepy mansion) with The Rocky Horror Show. Directed by David Armstrong as a total audience participation event, the show is an engagingly tawdry romp that is only diminished by some weak casting and major microphone maladies.
With its campy and pastiche-ridden book and lyrics and music by Richard O'Brien, this rowdy revel has never been a huge hit in New York, though it ran far longer in a 2000 Broadway revival than in 1975 when it ran a mere 50 performances. But it was a huge Seattle hit for the Empty Space back in the eighties, and the cult appeal of the midnight movie classic film is undeniable.
The silly but somehow satisfying plot is a send-up of B (and lower) grade horror and sci-fi films of the fifties and early sixties. An innocent young couple, Brad and Janet, on the verge of matrimony, experience a car breakdown in a storm, and they seek refuge at a spooky mansion full of monsters and sexual deviants, headed by mad scientist/transvestite Frank 'N' Furter, his minions Riff-Raff, Magenta, Columbia, and his Charles Atlas-styled manmade monster Rocky. Alien invaders, chainsaw murders and very naughty sex are all a part of author O'Brien's mad mix.
Director/choreographer David Armstrong cannily plays the opening prologue number "Science Fiction" as if it were being sung by a movie theatre full of Rocky devotees in their favorite characters' costumes, to a sassy vocal by Billie Wildrick as the Popcorn Girl (who also plays Columbia). The production encourages the audience to shout out favorite lines and comments, sing along, and in general participate as if they were at a midnight movie screening.
A game cast, many returnees from the 5th Avenue's Hair the past two seasons, competes with the audience feedback with mixed results. Simply outstanding are Laura Griffith and Louis Hobson as Brad and Janet. Griffith takes her Janet from Doris Day virginal to Mamie Van Doren slutty with ease and comic abandon, and a killer voice, while Hobson, Seattle's reigning younger male lead, has never been better as the hopelessly nerdy Brad, who takes to cross-gender clothing with great glee. His strong lead vocal on the number "Once In Awhile" (a gem from the score that got dropped in the film), accompanied by Armstrong's very amusing "dream-ballet" staging, is the show's highlight. Fans of Cheyenne Jackson (who departed Seattle for Broadway's Thoroughly Modern Millie shortly after playing Berger in the 2002 Hair) will be happy to see the engaging actor charm his way through the role of that dumb but endearing hunk o' monster, Rocky. In addition to buffing up for the physical demands of the role, Jackson's time on Broadway seems to have given him added confidence and comfort with himself as a performer, and that's a pleasure to see.
Doug Tompos is a bit underwhelming in the pivotal role of Frank 'N' Furter. Possessing a solid voice on "Sweet Transvestite" and other numbers, and an obvious understanding of what makes the role tick, he never loosens up enough to make the role his own, admittedly a tough job in the shadow of Tim Curry's defining Frank on stage and screen. It may just be that, like Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins, Robert Preston's Harold Hill, and Ellen Greene's Audrey (in Little Shop of Horrors), the indelible film image of Curry as Frank may be impossible for any actor to supplant. Nick Garrison, a seemingly ideal ghoul-in-arms as Frank's henchman Riff Raff, was rather subdued on opening night, obviously in vocal distress, and not aided at all by Andy Luft's wretched sound design which impacted the whole show (though Mr. Luft may not be wholly to blame, and the 5th really needs to upgrade its sound system overall).
Lisa Estridge-Gray qualifies as luxury casting in the solo-less role of Magenta, though she exhibits her trademark showmanship, while Brandon O'Neill as Frank's ex-flame Eddie fails to make much of his solo turn on "Whatever Happened To Saturday Night." It is, however, a treat to see comedy veteran Peggy Platt gender-bend her way gleefully through the role of Brad's mentor and Frank's nemesis, the wheelchair ridden Dr. Scott, and popular PM Magazine host John M. Curley is a droll and delightful surprise as the narrator. A cheer, too, to the ensemble, peopled by such stalwarts as Bobbi Kotula and Charlie Parker, who we're more accustomed to seeing in leading roles. They endow the show's famous "Time-Warp" production number with great gusto. Musical director Richard Gray leads a small but satisfying onstage band, though often amplified at the singers' expense.
Bradley Reed's costumes are in general the last word in brassy drag queen chic, though his punk look for biker Eddie seemed totally misguided for a fifties movie motif. Tom Sturges' set and lighting designs were a treat, with familiar tidbits from his Hair set design sneaking in.
A mark of the show's success was two friends, who had never seen Rocky in any form and were overwhelmingly engaged by the whole she-bang. Just a shame it couldn't have been scheduled for closer to Halloween, which would have been the natural time slot for this trick or treat of a musical.
The Rocky Horror Show plays through September 28 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. For further information visit the 5th Avenue Theatre on-line at www.5thavenuetheatre.org.- David-Edward Hughes