I’ve seen “The Rocky Horror Show” more times than I can count. In Wilmington, I’ve seen it every time City Stage has hosted it (I believe that’s around five, eight, 10 … I lost count). That it’s the 40th anniversary of the film version of the cult-classic—which starred a doe-eyed Susan Sarandon who had pneumonia on set, nonetheless—it’s no surprise that once again those creative ghouls at City Stage Co. would bring it back as their opener to the 2015-2016 season, right in time for Halloween. Yet, director Nick Gray flipped the glitz and glam of the show in a way I can honestly say I’ve never seen done with “Rocky Horror.” He chose to set it up as a frat party, complete with beer pong, togas, The Whip and Nae Nae, and songs revamped with the help of the cast banging on a few Solo cups.
So, the main question everyone wants to know: Does it work? Well, the answer’s not so simple.
Virgins—the loving term we give to all who’ve never had a “Rocky Horror” experience—will have a lot of fun regardless of the show’s extreme modernized update. How do I know? Well, I took one along with me to test it out and ran into another later in the week to ask. They both gushed over the hilarity of drunk college students onstage humping each other, making sex jokes, impersonating characters apparently out of ‘90s sitcoms (here’s looking at you, Zach Morris—err, I mean Rocky), and dancing like fools to beats the DJ interjects into the “Time Warp.”
Gray included into the show today’s requisite new-age, acronymic talk (WTF, OMG) as signs illuminating our narrator’s thoughts on what was unfolding. His modernized version most certainly reaches a new generation of theater-goers. On opening night the 100-plus-seat auditorium was packed—and with a ton of college-aged students. More so, almost everyone onstage in the ensemble were barely of drinking age. I have never seen so many new faces taking over the City Stage theater. In my opinion, that in itself is a massive win.
Now, for the purists: Brace yourself. Quite frankly, I didn’t even realize how much of a purist I was until seeing this version. Is the show fun? Sure. Will laughter be ever so apparent? Absolutely. But does it make sense in a way that only “The Rocky Horror Show” can make sense? No. Way.
First off, this version is disjointed. Richard O’Brien wrote “The Rocky Horror Show” musical in 1973, and debuted it on the big screen as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in 1975. O’Brien’s deep love of comic books, sci-fi and horror flicks became apparent in this misfit little script. Its otherworldly leanings (a transvestite doctor from another planet creates a boy toy of a hunk in a castle where his minions live and fuck and drink and party) mesh to near perfection, with over-the-top rock ‘n’ roll (“Sweet Transvestite”) that gallops across ‘50s pop rock, ‘60s psychedelia and ‘70s glam rock. In fact, “Rocky Horror” is totally built on a glam-rock aesthetic (hello, sequins, leather, lace, and lots of stiletto boots), much like that of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (in fact, some say he was the inspiration for the Frank N Furter character). When stripping the show bare to plain white togas and a set design draped in sheets—with the exception of one impressive car made of Solo cups—it feels less powerful. Less magnetic. Less weird. Less otherworldly. Less revealing.
The only character truly matching the script’s zany vibe is Dr. Frank N Furter, played by a wowing Jesse Gephart. Gephart is a larger-than-life figure onstage, owning every syllable enunciated from his overly painted lips. He walked the walk, talked the talk and had the audience eating every word from his mouth. He embodied power, yet also empathy as seen during his fall from grace.
His silver hot pants and crop top, complete with a bright yellow banana around his junk, was a costume of perfection. I just wish its “reveal” was more va-va-voom! It tipped its hat in homage to Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory, accented by the Velvet Underground and Nico’s famed banana album art work.
Just imagine that for a minute.
Now, pair Lou Reed, David Bowie and Andy Warhol hanging with a bunch of John Belushis from “Animal House.” Suddenly, the Silver Factory just got less cool. Gephart never waned in erotic hipness, but I didn’t believe for once he would surround himself with toga-wearing college kids who dance to “Uptown Funk” instead of “Run, Run, Run” or “Queen Bitch.”
Rachael Sutton as Janet stuns, too. She’s Frank N Furter’s polar opposite in hedonism and instead embodies reticence. Her tough grip on inhibition seeps from her pores at every turn, and it paints Janet the goody two-shoes we need her to be. Sutton’s so adorable to watch onstage, as she physically and mentally wrestles with the peer pressure of sexual exploration. When she lets loose, there’s a wildness to it that’s primal and speaks to the script.
Joe Basquill as Brad is acceptably sweet, but not quite as nerdy as he is written. Basquill gives it his all to be seen and heard, but most of the time he is overshadowed by the minions surrounding him: Riff Raff (Brad Mercier), Magenta (Caitlin Becka) and Columbia (Alyssa Fetherolf).
Mercier literally wears a John Belushi T-shirt to distinguish him the “frat president”—err, head minion—a beefy dude who can down a beer and make a quip in 2 seconds flat, while unsnapping a chick’s bra simultaneously. He’s far from the creepy, hunchback, oddball that O’Brien originally wrote (and played in the movie) as Riff Raff. Mercier does a good job winning laughs from the audience as the resident tool, but he misses the futuristic appeal the character needs in order to carry the script to success in its final moments. The same can be said for his sister, Magenta, who’s usually played with an exotic touch. She’s often foreign, but here Becka gives her a Valley Girl/mean-girl vibe; it works for Gray’s vision.
Fetherolf as Columbia foregoes sequins, a top hat and tap shoes for cut-off shorts, a ripped crop top, a long, wavy side pony tail, and black-lined lips that speak a thick Long Island accent. Her “oh, no she didn’t” voice can only be matched by her massive finger pointing through every line. Fetherolf commits and certainly makes this version of Columbia believable. But Columbia’s one of the minions first to turn on Frank N Furter, which creates a bit of tension in the script. It shows us how the transvestite loses his power. That tension is not played up here, and so Columbia’s importance falls a little flat. Essentially, each minion or ensemble character embodies someone we wish we didn’t know from our own planet rather than weirdos we want to voyeuristically spy on, maybe even be.
The music, directed by Judson Hurd, is good for the most part; although, on opening night, the show was plagued by sound issues. This usually can be forgiven but they were never fixed. Therefore, many lines were lost, and a lot of vivacity that carries the songs only sort of piqued. Nothing can “sort of” be in “Rocky Horror”; it’s go big, or go home.
All in all, I’d say the main gripe with trying to re-envision this show is that when it’s taken so far out of its element aesthetically, it loses moxie. In this case, it’s warped to normality—and out of time.