“Part play, part rock show, part party” was how Director Joel Ferrell described The Rocky Horror Show to me last night after the showing at the Dallas Theater Center (DTC). His production certainly treats Richard O’Brien’s masterpiece as such. There are first-rate musicians belting out the familiar but pleasurable numbers. A strong and enthusiastic cast animating the story. And an engaging and contrived stage design to build it all on. Little wonder that row upon row of the audience were on their feet when Time Warp came around and all the audience interjections familiar to attendees of the film version (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) peppered the dialog as well. Sometimes these were used to good effect, as when an interrupted Riff Raff improvised “as that lady said” to a Frank N. Furter cross examination.
The Rocky Horror is a tough play to stage because every attendee (and every reader of this review) has seen the movie and judges all the players by the actors in that. The plot in the play, which predated the 1975 movie by two years, is actually slightly different. Joel Ferrell, it turns out, has never seen the play, only the movie. Little surprise that his production is the closest to the movie of the three stagings that I have seen. In the 1980s, the “New Arts Theater” in Dallas’ West End (back when it targeted high-end restaurants and culture) staged the edgiest with bare breasts and a band positioned underneath the stage behind a grill at audience level, thereby making them detectable but not clearly visible. At the end, backlights were turned on, revealing the players. The multi-level design was a model of how to use a small space effectively. Unfortunately, even the popularity of that excellent show couldn’t prevent me, and other season ticket holders, from becoming unsecured creditors of the theater on its subsequent bankruptcy filing (along with just about everything else in the West End).
Casa Manana staged the play in Fort Worth over a decade ago — a Fort Worth premiere and only some quarter century after the original. It was a well-produced show that stuck to the original play. No attempts at “contemporary relevance”.
The DTC production is the most ostentatious. It is also the best-funded, and ostentation loves a big budget. Whether you are a Rocky Horror virgin, or an avid Rocky Horror Picture Show attendee, you will find it great fun.
The original play was written and scored by Richard O’Brien, an out of work actor who had appeared in Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. It may indicate its immediate critical acceptance that its first staging was in London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1973 (remember Watergate?). This is equivalent to your first play starting on Broadway. It was to run for seven years. Moreover, 20th Century Fox quickly picked up the film rights and released The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975. That flopped on first release and was put on the midnight movie circuit. This eventually led to the phenom’ we all know of, making it the longest running film release in history and spectacularly profitable for Fox, and for the actors through their residuals.
In the United States, the play ran for just 45 performances on Broadway in 1975 (however, the critics liked it. Giving it one Tony nomination and three Drama Desk nominations). Despite slow initial audience acceptance, by 1980 it was touring the country. Now it is shown almost continuously somewhere in the U.S. and there is a web site to track performances.
Ferrell’s DTC production is built around a solid cast, albeit without any memorable breakthrough performances. Alex Organ as Brad Majors is the most convincing depiction, looking part upper-crust, part CPA, and naturally dispensing hapless mannerisms befitting how out of place he is amid Transylvanians. The character of Janet Weiss is brought up to date by Morgan Mabry Mason who looks every bit a teenager of the under exercised and overfed current generation and not the willowy figure of a young Susan Sarandon. In the same vein, the character of Dr. Everett Scott changes gender and becomes African-American in the personage of the able Liz Mikel. Generally, it is surprising how fresh the plot looks today, 40 years on, while so much 70’s popular culture has become quaint or corny.
The movie has a notable lag just after the midpoint before the build up to the dramatic conclusion. Farrell’s solution is to have Frank N. Furter sign autographs for the two ‘straightest’ looking members of the theater audience. I would have skipped this diversion from the script as it takes him out of character, to be just an emcee. Generally, Dan Domenech plays a believable Frank N. Furter, and with increasing confidence as the script goes on But watching him does remind you just how nuanced was Tim Curry’s performance in the film. The leering eye movements and relaxed timing in, say, Sweet Transvestite are missing here.
I would also have followed the film in deleting the awful Once in a While.
The thing that accounts for Rocky Horror’s enduring and broad social following is the quality of the songs. This was brought into graphic relief for me early this year when I saw the opposite. A new musical with A-list backing, prime location, a much richer plot, but not a single memorable song. It ran less than seven weeks. Ferrell’s musicians are also the stars of this show. Interestingly, one, Kwinton Gray on keyboards, started music playing gospel. Rocky Horror must have been quite a switch.
So book now for the run through October 19th. You are going to consider it one of the best tickets this year. Two special midnight performances are scheduled for Friday, September 26 and Friday, October 17. Tickets to The Rocky Horror Show are on sale now online and by phone at (214) 880-0202.