Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Rocky Horror Show
Also see Richard's recent review Macbeth
This new staging of Richard O'Brien's famed rock musical, which goes from 1950s rock to rock ballads to rock anthems and all the way to 1970s glam, is great fun, and super-danceable too, set in a towering madhouse of gothic castle. Justin Been directs, finding laughs in unexpected places, and altering the tenor of a couple of characters to make it fresh and new. Audience shout-outs are welcome, but leave the squirt-guns and lighters at home.
Michael Juncal, a performer of neverending wit and resolve, is Frank 'N' Furter, the evil genius at the center of it all. And he ad-libbed a "shout-out" of his own, right back at one exceedingly well-rehearsed fan in the audience, late in the action on the first Friday night, triggering a good laugh. This Frank goes wigless, which adds a sort of hardened, Bond-villain demeanor to the character, though it's one Mr. Juncal is perfectly delightful in cultivating.
He sings with great resourcefulness too, though he and the rest of the cast are dwarfed in the vocal department by this show's Janet Weiss (lovely Heather Matthews) and Magenta (lovely Maria Bartolotta). Corey Frain, who was so touching in Stray Dog's recent Bat Boy, also makes an excellent high-tenor Riff Raff, and nails every dark moment of the original "handyman" (author Richard O'Brien) in the meantime.
But wait, there's another O'Brienthis show's Brad Majors, played by Kevin O'Brien. He starts out as an ultra-staid artifact of the 1950s: you can almost see the name "Levittown" emblazoned on his forehead, behind those horn-rimmed glasses. Then later, as most of us know, Brad must experience the sexual revolution, that many young baby boomers were already experiencing, when Rocky Horror first premiered in London in 1973. It's a strangely powerful (and even disturbing) awakening in Kevin O'Brien's iterationjust as stunning, but quite different, from Janet's (Ms. Matthews') own: she's completely exuberant in her newly liberated "act two" self, until the morning after.
By far the most experienced man on stage, Gerry Love, is a completely re-imagined Narrator, the stern voice of moral authority (played by Charles Gray in the 1975 movie version of this musicalMr. Gray was also a Bond villain in 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, for those of you keeping track). Mr. Love's Narrator is an Army officer from the American South, in camo-fatigues, collecting precious bodily fluids along the way as part of some super-secret government project.
Sara Rae Womack is excellent as Columbia, the human girl drawn into Frank's own web of sin, and Michael A. Wells (who first performed in a Rocky Horror Show in 2003, if memory serves) is full of the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis as Eddie (then later a great rueful and incisive Dr. Scott).
Luke Steingruby has sprouted golden blond hair to play the title role, a naïf in the body of a young David. His singing and acting are both top-notch too, as he transitions from uneasy boy-toy (with Frank) to eager adventurer (with Janet), and ultimately into his own troubled awakening.
Overall, it's not as wistful as some previous productions, perhaps a bit more hard-driving and deterministic, as if the world-changing nature of the subject matter were a fait accompli. But everyone under Mr. Been's direction (including the excellent cast of "phantoms") sings and acts so well, it seems like they've had years to hone their characters, with all the combined knowledge and experience of every other Brad and Janet and Frank and Riff magically passed down to them in a liquid genetic solution of some kind.
But of course, that can't really be true, can it? They'd have to have developed some futuristic transducer, of some sort, to defy time and space! And no such thing exists on this island Earth...
Before the show there are lots of great old movie trailers, putting us in the mindset of a 1950s drive-in, with "hair-raising" sci-fi previews. But somehow it's the strange (authentic) '50's op-art cartoon ads for snacks at intermission that actually do scare us: leukemia-licious hot dogs and sugar-laden soft drinks, and big cups of popcorn, doused in pitchers of melted butter, dancing like clumsy monsters on the big screen.
The sci-fi previews are lovingly pieced together to remind us of the atmosphere of the times, during the Red Scare. It was not only an anti-Communist, right-wing movement that destroyed many careers, but it also became the subtext for movies like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Them. Movies like that inspired Rocky Horror, but here space aliens are blamed for a very different kind of "scare": the whole sexual revolution to come in the '60s and '70s. It's a show that perfectly captures that 1950s air of ruinous suspicion and post-war fear of moral ambiguityall while managing to be a lot of silly, sexy fun.
Chris Petersen's band is immaculate in all the many forms of rock 'n' roll the show demands, and that towering set becomes an impossible Matterhorn of dangers and delights, thanks to designer Robert J. Lippert.
Through October 29, 2016, with added performances the final weekend on Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Cast, in order of appearance