Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
How could an out-of-work English actor named Richard O'Brien, who wrote book, music and lyrics, have guessed in 1973 when the show opened at a 63-seat theater, what a sensation it would become? Combining several of his own interestsscience fiction, ghouls, glam rock, and sexual identitythe results are something like a panoramic scan of posters adorning the wall of a post-adolescent fever-dreamer. It was a smash in London, moving to successively larger theaters over the course of a seven-year run. California hit-maker Lou Adler swiftly imported The Rocky Horror Show to Los Angeles in 1974 where it played to full houses for nine months. Opening in 1975 on Broadway, Adler expected its counter-cultural wavelength to coast on the heels of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar but the Great White Way wasn't ready for a transvestite mad scientist. It lasted there only six weeks.
Fortunately, Adler had already signed a movie deal during the Los Angles run. The film, called The Rocky Horror Picture Show, arrived in 1975 and was largely dismissed by critics and audiences alike, but it took hold when the Waverly Theatre in New York began showing it at midnight screenings. Soon, theaters all around the country were showing the film to late night crowds, and the rest is pop culture history. In 2000, a Broadway revival ran for sixteen months, a sweet comeback from its first dismal New York outing.
One change in Park Square's production is that Frank N. Furter, the madman at the core of the story usually played by a man is here played by a woman, the charismatic Gracie Anderson. The part is written as a male in black bustier, fishnet stockings, and painted fingernails, projecting an androgynous pansexuality that both threatens and titillates without regard to physical body parts. What difference does the gender of the actor make, when the whole point is to erase gender from the equation?
After a welcome from the entire cast to a "Science Fiction Double Feature," a narrator steps on stage, seaming to have left his workaday world behind and slipping into something more comfortable. He guides us through the story, occasionally unable to resist the impulse to join in, a device that was seen (borrowed?) by Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone. The story begins with a naïve young couple, Janet and Brad. After Brad awkwardly proposes ("Damn It Janet"), the two innocents head off to visit Dr. Scott, their former science tutor. Like almost everything in Rocky Horror, there is no explanation for that, but who cares, right? Into a storm they drive, when a flat tire strands them in the pouring rain with only one shelter in sightthe spooky castle laboratory of Dr. Frank N. Furter.
Brad and Janet are admitted to the castle by ghoulish servants, Magenta and Riff Raff, before meeting Frank ("Sweet Transvestite"). Also on hand are Columbia, Frank's former lover who wears a 1930s usherette uniform; a risen-from-the dead biker named Eddie, who is both Frank and Columbia's former lover; and a Frank's latest masterwork, a muscle-bound boy-toy, Rocky Horror. Frank assures the nascent Rocky, sporting gold lame briefs to arousing effect, "I Can Make You a Man." At some point, Brad and Janet are stripped down to their skivviesto dry their clothes from the rain, or course (wink, wink). Then things get really weird as Janet and Brad learn a thing or two.
All of this is accompanied by a full array of jocular musical numbers to offset the sinister decadence. "The Time Warp" sets the tonenot only is this hullabaloo moving into a different time dimension, but also following its own set of logic. The pursuit of pleasure is Frank's yardstick for measuring right and wrong, as he asserts control over everyone in his domain, including a command-performance floorshow his "guests" are made to perform for him.
Anderson grabs the audiences by the throat and holds it firmly whenever she is on stage. What a range this actor has, having this year played ditzy Ilona Ritter in She Loves Me at Artistry, smoky vocalist Peggy Lee in Tenderly at Old Log, and now Frank. Her vocals capture the go-for-broke passion of 1970s glam rockers, nailing the power-ballad, "I'm Going Home," and she moves with the slithery seduction of a cobra. Anderson's bravado performance is reason enough to catch this Rocky Horror Show.
But all of the performances are winners. Ricky Morisseau is sublime as the narrator, getting sucked more and more into the story until it is not clear how much is his own fevered fantasy. Ben Lohrberg is a great Brad, as upright as a telephone pole and rather adorable when he starts to tilt, with a pleasingly strong voice, to deliver "Damnit Janet" and "Once in a While." Natalie Shaw is mischievous Janet, who is less beholden to inhibitions than her fiancé, becoming giddily amorous when the chance arises ("Touch-A Touch-A Touch Me). Cameron Reeves gives a rip-roaring performance as Eddie, especially launching into "Hot Patootie," while Sara Ochs is kooky as Dr. Scott (another role typically played by a male) and gives "Eddie's Teddy" a nice mix of tenderness and absurdity. As Rocky, Rush Benson has the physique and moves to satisfy lustful Dr. Frank N. Furter, as well as the audience.
Toeplitz has fashioned sprightly dances for her troupe, with rousing production numbers like the opening "Science Fiction Double Feature," "Planet-Schmanet - Wise Up Janet Weis," the floorshow montage, and everyone's favorite, "The Time Warp." Andrew Fleser conducts the five-piece band, visible on a balcony that also is the setting of several scenes. The band sounds great, putting heart into O'Brien's rock-happy score, and Dylan Younger plays a couple of solos on sax that raise the roof.
The set, designed by An-Lin Dauber, provides an assortment of playing areas, with a movable long metal staircase that allows Frank to strike grand dame poses. Rebecca Bernstein created an eye-catching array of costumes, each exaggerated to match the out-sized personalities wearing them, or in the case of Brad and Janet, hum-drum enough to match their initial bashfulness. I was especially tickled by Columbia's darling, sparkly usherette attire and by the narrator's gradual sartorial shift from working stiff to a first cousin of Frank N. Furter. Robert A. Dunn makes sure that each character's hair is in line, with his clever wig designs. Sound designer Peter Morrow provides all kinds of creepy effects, and lighting designer Andrew Griffin casts the darkness of the plot in a bright light, the better to see the chains around inhibitions being broken down. He also makes sure that a couple of racy scenes performed as shadow images behind screens are plainly discernible. Props designer Nicole DelPizzo did a super job of rounding up a large number of dildoes, used as fans might be used in other dance musicals.
When it first arrived, The Rocky Horror Show's display of cross-dressing, bisexuality, and polyamorous relationships was seen as a revolutionary statement. Now it is almost a quaint image of the seismic changes that were rocking our cultural ground in the 1970s. To be sure, much of what happens on stage will still be viewed as outrageous and unacceptable to some viewers, and O'Brien takes glee in making it all a bit too much, but the idea of such behavior going on in our society is hardly news anymore.
A lot of care and raunchy energy have gone into this production. That said, The Rocky Horror Show is an amusing frolic, but not nearly a great musical. Those with strong attachments to the midnight screenings of the movie will no doubt love having a chance to see Frank and his gang in the flesh, and the lobby concession counter sells a $5.00 bag of props for audience participation, though at the Sunday afternoon matinee I attended, there was little of this sort of response from the audience. The production is well mounted, strongly cast, and can show you a good time.
The Rocky Horror Show runs through November 27, 2019, at Park Square Theatre's Proscenium Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $40.00 - 70.00; under 30 discount tickets, $21.00; students and educators, $16.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military, $10.00 discount. Rush tickets, $20.00 one hour before each performance, subject to availability. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Book, Music and Lyrics: Richard O'Brien; Director and Choreographer: Ilana Ransom Toeplitz; Music Director: Andrew Fleser; Set Design: An-Lin Dauber; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Lighting Design: Andrew Griffin; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Wig Design: Robert A. Dunn; Props Design: Nicole DelPizzo; Vocal Coach: Foster Johns; Intimacy Consultant: Annie Enneking; Dramaturg: Morgan Holmes; Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Stage Manager: Jamie J. Kranz; Park Square Directing Fellow: Ashwanti Sakina Ford; Assistant Choreographer: Rush Benson; Assistant Lighting Designer: Richard Graham.
Cast: Gracie Anderson (Frank), Rush Benson (Rocky), Ben Lohrberg (Brad), Celena Vera Morgan (Columbia), Ricky Morisseau (Narrator), Hope Nordquist (Magenta), Sara Ochs (Dr. Scott), Cameron Reeves (Eddie), Randy Schmeling (Riff Raff), Natalie Shaw (Janet).