When it opened on Broadway a quarter-century ago, Variety succinctly and colorfully described “The Rocky Horror Show” as “a garish, ear-assaulting musical put-on of pseudo-science and ambi-sex porno entertainment.” Sounds fun, no? Twenty-five years on, Christopher Ashley’s revival of Richard O’Brien’s garish, ear-assaulting musical put-on of pseudo-science and ambi-sex porno entertainment is still quite a lot of fun — but it’s not likely to send Mayor Rudolph Giuliani into a tizzy. Today, the musical nearly qualifies as wholesome family entertainment.
This new production isn’t so much a revival of the original stage show — a huge hit in London that flopped quickly on Broadway — as a theatrical transcription of the 1975 screen version — which morphed into a midnight-movie phenomenon — to which the work gave birth. Energetic participation is all but demanded at Broadway’s first interactive musical, which carries a high top ticket price ($79.50) for the game young audiences it will need to draw.
Onstage, the actors pause to welcome audience responses that were originally screamed impromptu at tattered movie screens and have now taken on the rigidity of liturgical texts. Whenever the name of our strait-laced hero Brad Majors is intoned, a booming chorus cries out “Asshole!”; mention of his fiancee Janet Weiss likewise invites the affectionate epithet “Slut!”
There are also goodie bags available (for a steep $10) containing flashlights and throwable items; confetti fills the air during the mock nuptials of mad scientist-cum-sweet transvestite Frank ‘N’ Furter and his manufactured man-thing Rocky. And we’re all encouraged to join in a reprise of “Time Warp” at the curtain call. (I confess that I took a jump to the left and just kept on going; call me a spoilsport.)
While it’s not a trend one wants to see spreading pell-mell up and down Broadway (it might be a bit distracting to have audiences shrieking “Asshole!” at “Copenhagen’s” Niels Bohr), the raucous involvement of the folks in the seats gives a daffy boost to the appeal of this loving revival of O’Brien’s musical, a flimsy but nonetheless durable spoof of a schlocky horror pic dressed up in a glitter-rock frock.
Equally crucial are the exuberant performances of the eccentrically chosen cast. Presiding over the festivities in his inimitably dry manner is Dick Cavett. He reads the show’s tongue-in-cheek “Masterpiece Theater”-esque narration while engaging in his own witty interplay with the audience. At the performance reviewed, Cavett took pains to remind us that we were at “the ‘Rocky’ horror show, not that other one down in Florida,” adding crisply, “Ours is more rational.” And if you’re really lucky you may get a chance to hear Mr. Cavett, in his impeccable upper-crust drawl, threaten to “bitch-slap” an unduly boisterous member of the audience.
Tom Hewitt steps bravely into the fishnets and platform heels of Frank ‘N’ Furter, the role that turned Tim Curry into a powerful icon of androgyny for many a sexually confused adolescent (and torpedoed his career, one fears, for a good decade). Hewitt’s hair is bleached blond, but otherwise his aptly luscious performance is evocative of Curry’s mixture of flamboyant menace and snarling song.
Frank’s evil minions are convincingly played by Raul Esparza (Riff Raff), “Rent” alum Daphne Rubin-Vega (Magenta) and rocker Joan Jett (just a little stiff as Columbia). Like the show’s small chorus of generic ghouls, they sport gothic makeup, fetish gear, piercing voices and pierced flesh; they’re meant to represent the height of Transylvanian maleficence, even if the Marilyn Manson look is not all that spooky anymore — it’s practically become the corporate uniform at Tower Records.
Lea DeLaria is an arrestingly androgynous ball of fire in her two roles, while Sebastian LaCause, a beefy Chelsea type whose perma-tanned body apparently grows glitter rather than hair, fills out the brief requirements of the role of Rocky more than generously.
Of course, the really exotic figures in “Rocky Horror” are Brad and Janet, the soon-to-be newlyweds who get waylaid — ahem! — one dark and stormy night on the way to visit a friend. They’re the ones who really seem to be from another planet, and they’re played to perfection here by Alice Ripley (“Side Show”) and Jarrod Emick (“Damn Yankees”).
Peering intently through square black frames that echo his square jaw, Emick is a model of ’50s young American manhood, and he’s no slouch in gold leather heels, either. Ripley, pinup-pretty and dressed for the top of a wedding cake, is absolutely the freshest and funniest thing in the show; her wide-eyed comic asides as she traces Janet’s transformation from sorority girl to sex kitten are priceless.
Vocally as well, Emick and Ripley are standouts; their clear and supple voices shine better than most through the lyric-mangling and, yes, ear-assaulting sound mix. O’Brien’s score, ’50s rock and soul run through a ’70s synthesizer, is consistently infectious and rousing — and far superior to his book, as he appears to know. Early in the second act, the plot begins decomposing before our eyes, and the show’s long finale is performed concert-style, on a long runway that is the last of the many transformations undergone by David Rockwell’s sometimes clever, sometimes awkward sets. (Rockwell, a restaurant and hotel designer, is making his theater debut.)
The whole cast assembles in matching gold heels and leather corsets, and shimmies through a last fervent splash of Jerry Mitchell’s serviceably raunchy choreography (after “Rocky Horror” and “Full Monty,” one wonders if Mitchell can work with properly clothed people). Then, all too soon, the party’s over. The apparitions onstage disappear, the performers in the audience return to their anonymous selves and the rest of us are left to pick the confetti out of our hair.