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Trustus Revival of Campy Cult Classic The Rocky Horror Show Still Has Relevant Message: Don't Dream It, Be It

Review by August Krickel

It's astounding that The Rocky Horror Show, Richard O'Brien's kinky, campy, musical spoof of sci-fi films, ran for over seven years in London, winning the 1973 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical. Time is fleeting - Trustus Theatre's production runs through November 5, and for the first time, Scott Blanks, the lead actor in the last five Trustus incarnations, has traded in his fishnets and stiletto heels for the director's chair, while Chris Cockrell, his faithful handyman Riff Raff in previous years, steps in as music director.  Madness takes its toll, or seems to, if you've never experienced this cult classic, as audience members heckle the cast in unison, throw confetti and toilet paper at the stage, and spray each other with squirt guns. Listen closely, not for very much longer: I've got to keep control of my fan-boy's love of the material, and explain how - and why - one might enjoy such seemingly quirky and lightweight fare.

I remember doing the "Time Warp" - the show's audience participation dance which features a jump to the left, a step to the right, and a pelvic thrust that will really drive you insa-a-a-ane - drinking those moments when my teenage friends and I were able to sneak a few mini-bottles into the old Bush River Cinema for midnight showings of the 1975 screen adaptation with Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon.  This became a rite of passage for college kids across America; if you knew Rocky Horror, you were part of a hip, subversive, sexy sub-culture that cosplayed before cosplaying was cool. Shy or self-conscious gals could strut their stuff in lingerie, and guys who might or might not be out of the closet could dress in drag without fear. Even geeky straight guys who did theater like me were welcome to tag along, since every group needed a Brad or Dr. Scott. And if someone played the soundtrack - from which I've been quoting liberally above - at a cast party, the blackness would hit us, the void would be calling, and we would indeed do the "Time Warp" again.  In short, the show is all about the shared experience. Newcomers to the phenomenon will catch on quickly that the plot and stylized acting are intended as parody, that the non-stop sexual references are meant as titillating yet harmless fun, and that audience participation is a live, ritualistic variation on the wisecracks later popularized by Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The framing story is an Ed Wood-like mashup of genre tropes, which are invoked in the prologue song "Science Fiction/Double Feature." Naive couple Brad (Cody Lovell) and Janet (Anna Lyles) seek shelter in an archetypal old dark house, inhabited by mad scientist Frank N. Furter (Walter Graham) and his creepy minions, Riff (Michael Hazin) and Magenta (Katie Leitner.)  Actually aliens from the planet Transsexual, in the galaxy of Transylvania, Riff and Magenta sport a vaguely undead pallor, while Frank is a flamboyant cross-dresser who surrounds himself with human followers, including tap-dancing groupie Columbia (Kayla Cahill) and an ensemble of "phantoms."  Pansexual romps with earthlings are part of their fun, but Frank focuses on his creation/boytoy Rocky, a blonde muscleman (Josh Kern). O'Brien, who played Riff in both the original stage and film versions, has said that the plot is a metaphor for his own journey of sexual exploration, told via motifs from late-night creature features. An alumnus of British casts of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, O'Brien became an early adopter of electric guitars and rock-and-roll beats for use in a stage musical, including echoes of and first-rate homages to 1950's leather-clad R&B, the high hair and high harmonies of 1960's girl groups, and the baroque excess and androgyny of 1970's glam rock. Or, "hard-rock-candy," as one critic famously wrote.

Everyone's voice is superb. Man-of-a-thousand-voices Hazin channels O'Brien's flat, nasal delivery, incorporating his own physicality and athleticism with a chaotic lurching gait in lieu of an actual hunchback, and he swings down onto the stage from a stripper pole like a pro. Leitner adds her lush vocals to the prologue in the guise of an Usherette, then slinks seductively through successive scenes as Magenta. Cahill is perky and amusing as Columbia, while Lovell and Trustus newcomer Lyles are perfect as the white bread innocents. Lovell, appealing in recent Trustus shows like Peter and the Starcatcher and American Idiot, gets to sing a pretty ballad, "Once in a While," which was cut from the popular film, and is given excellent backing by the male ensemble. Lyles also hits some beautiful notes, and glides across stage with a dancer's grace.

As Frank, Graham goes for his own interpretation, sporting a wig with a sort of 60's housewife bob rather than the traditional unruly, curly mop. Nevertheless, he rocks that corset with his rich baritone, and captures the contradictory nature of a sexually omnivorous alpha male who is in touch with his feminine side.  And just about everyone else's too. I'm more accustomed to Graham's work as a vocalist and vocal director, but he's a worthy successor as an actor to the iconic role memorably played by Blanks. The ensemble comprises four men and six women, who are outstanding. It's interesting to note that nearly half of them, as well as music director Cockrell and even the stage manager and sound board operator, are all veterans of 2014's Shrek the Musical at Town Theatre, where Blanks, and most of the leads have also performed. It's gratifying to see Trustus continuing to bring in new talent, ensuring that the right voices and the right types can fill the right roles. Cockrell has become the go-to guy at Trustus for rocking musicals, and he leads a top-notch band on keyboards, aided by impressive work on the tenor sax by Davis Bowers.  The band is atypically situated next to the sound booth, above the main entrance to the house.  That's a prime location, I feel, affording them an easy and necessary view of proceedings on stage, but leaving the performance space free for the actors. Brandon McIver's set is solid and functional, although somewhat threadbare, but it's significantly enhanced by striking visual effects by Baxter Engle including a rain storm, a bouncing ball that accompanies  the "Time Warp" lyrics, and a phallic variant of the old "Let's all go to the lobby" cartoon.

Few in the Midlands know Rocky Horror more intimately than Blanks, who has crafted a slick, polished, Vegas-style production of a famously low-budget, hard-rocking, guilty pleasure. You'll absolutely enjoy nearly two hours of toe-tapping tunes from great singers. Yet much of the subtlety (in a famously unsubtle piece) felt lost in the performers' rush to get to each well-known musical number in succession so that they might then rock the house.  There's not a lot of expository dialogue between songs, making every word and glance crucial for the plot, however silly that plot might be. In that opening number, for example, I'm not sure how many in the audience caught references to specific sci-fi films and actors (Flash Gordon, Claude Rains, Forbidden Planet, etc.) although I'm sure they loved the cute usherette costume and wig, and the unexpected entrance from the rear of the house. Nor am I convinced if too many picked up on how the titular Rocky was created, i.e. using part of the brain from ill-fated delivery boy Eddie (Percy Saint Cyprian.)  Or that the lyrics of "I Can Make You A Man" are a devastatingly witty satire of old Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads, grafted onto the premise of a Frankenstein-like creation. Or that Riff and Magenta really don't like Frank, and are planning mutiny. Or that the ensemble's matching wigs and attire, cast aside in the finale, may imply they are not just party guests but rather victims of Frank's mind-control. On the other hand, a music-free scene of comedy was well-received by the opening night audience as Frank seduces first Janet and then Brad, aided by a terrific effect creating the sense of an overhead view of a bedroom. Similarly, Leitner got a huge laugh when, in character, she glared daggers at an unexpected ad-lib from the audience. Moments of spontaneity like that serve to support the free-form nature of the material, which is written more cleverly than one might realize.

Possibly, at 43, Rocky Horror has simply grown up and entered the Broadway canon, appealing now to a mainstream audience who enjoy the catchy show tunes, and dutifully purchase their bags of participation props, turning then to their programs for guidance on where and when to spontaneously shout the accepted callbacks. Or alternatively, perhaps the naughty little musical has become a greater cultural phenomenon, much like a Carolina game where one dresses in garnet and black, applies Gamecock logos to one's cheek, cheers at the 2001 theme, and whirls something in the air when "Sandstorm" is played...but may or may not actually follow all the action on the field. In any event, Trustus undoubtedly has a hit on their hands, and a great mainstage season opener. It's worth remembering, however, however, that 43 years ago, it wasn't nearly as safe or acceptable to root for a "sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania," and that the play's message of "don't dream it, be it" is a self-fulfilling testimony to how far as a society we have come.  For ticket information, visit http://www.trustus.org, or call 803-254-9732.







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