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'The Rocky Horror Show'

by Donald Munro
The Fresno Bee, November 3, 2008

You'd better get your tickets fast.

The stars align -- at least the ones involving Earth and a distant planet named Transsexual -- for the new production of "The Rocky Horror Show" at the Severance Building . With the limited number of performances and seating capacity, it's the kind of show that could become the hottest ticket in town and sell out an entire run. Boasting a gregarious spirit that captures much of the campy excess of the well-known movie, this live musical version from Artists' Repertory Theatre is innovatively staged, extremely well sung, strikingly choreographed and just salacious enough to provoke a shocked Fresno sermon or two.

And on top of all that, you get to throw toilet paper at the actors. What could top that?

A working knowledge of the "Rocky Horror" movie tradition, which spoofs numerous B-movie horror and sci-fi traditions, isn't absolutely essential to enjoy the stage version. Neither is a familiarity with the now hallowed audience-participation customs that have grown up alongside the 1975 movie, cementing its cult status. (News flash for eager "Rocky" fans: Throwing rice has been banned for safety reasons, alas.) But it certainly helps for an audience member to have some prior "Rocky Horror" background, whether it's comprehending the bizarre plot (which involves a stormy night, a fearsome castle, a towering transvestite, a muscle-bound relative of Frankenstein and the ever popular device of murderous space aliens) or knowing that "Time Warp" is pretty much the most addictive dance number in history.

Jeff White's clever set helps set the scene: first as the show's framing device, a dilapidated movie theater about to show a "Science Fiction Double Feature," the title of the first song (sung beautifully by usherettes Lilly Dale Murray and Debi Ruud), and then doubling as the setting for the mysterious house that Brad (White doing double duty) and Janet (an entrancing Alexis Garriott) find themselves stranded at during a rainstorm.

Using the unconventional space of the Severance Building , White and director Daniel Chavez Jr. have devised a sort of "basketball court" staging strategy with tiered seating on opposite sides, with the action unfolding the entire length of the court. With the live band at one end and the movie theater proscenium, which serves as a natural dramatic focus, at the other, the result is a dynamic use of space that shifts with White's clever floating set pieces.

Once out of the storm and inside the mansion, Brad and Janet meet some of its strange occupants, including the aptly named Riff Raff (S. Eric Day, as gruff as they make them) and sidekicks Magenta (a funny, shrill Jennifer Hurd-Peterson) and Columbia (the powerfully voiced and charismatic Katharine Dorian). After learning the Time Warp dance, the most anticipated character in the show -- the haughty transvestite Frank 'N' Furter (played with bruising conviction by a very talented Chavez) makes a grand entrance.

From there it's the good old-fashioned "Rocky Horror" fun familiar to fans of the movie: the unveiling of Rocky (played with an endearing goofiness by a seriously tan Jeremy Hitch); the introduction of the chaotic Eddie (the dramatically sturdy, if noticeably slimmer, M. Justin Red in the role played in the movie by Meatloaf); and other various outer-space shenanigans.

As an actor, Chavez is a wonderful Frank: seductive, surly, a little scary. With his tall, black corseted frame (just one of costume designer Martha Powell's impressive creations) and glittered curly hair (ditto to Lisa DeBenedicti's hair and makeup design), he lords over his domain both figuratively and literally.

As choreographer, Chavez gives us a fresh new version of the Time Warp and some terrific ensemble dances, such as "Hot Patootie," that suggest a 1950s sock hop meets a contemporary punk-rock concert.

If there's a weakness in the show, I'd say that it's in certain aspects of Chavez's direction. For "Rocky Horror" to succeed, it has to bristle with self-confidence, and there were times on opening night when the show seemed to lag a little -- not from lack of enthusiasm, but just in the sheer mechanics of shifting scenes and keeping the forward momentum going. Sometimes the choreography gets a little too fussy and perhaps a little too difficult, such as in the number "Once in a While," in which Brad gets awkwardly hoisted on the shoulders of the Phantoms. (At some point, as choreographer, you just have to cut a move like that if it's bogging down a number.)

Other issues: The role of the Narrator (played by Hal Bolen) gets swallowed up by the otherwise intriguing stage, and there's little chance for him to bond with the audience. (And even his prominently white costume, which made him look like a '70s accountant at a swingers party, seems something of a miscalculation.) The wonderful pit band and backup vocalists are a huge bonus for the show, but far too many lyrics were lost because of balance problems, particularly in the second act. The lighting design, by Ben Holly, has to account for a lot of complexities, but it could use some refinements in terms of lighting the central part of the stage. And while I love the idea of audience participation, I wish there could have been a little more coordinated encouragement for audience members. (After all, the traditions surrounding the movie took years to build up, and because of the natural hesitation people have not to break theater etiquette, we probably needed a little more guidance. Especially the folks who didn't pay extra for the goodie bags.)

But as the show settles into its run, I'm confident that it will become an even more cohesive force to be reckoned with. There are so many high points: the wonderful staging of Frank's visits to Brad and Janet's bedrooms; Janet's raw and vigorous "Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me"; the wonderful costumes; technical director Chris Campbell's ability to make magic out of very little; the lush vocalizations in O'Brien's score. (Ruud, the vocal director, helps make the experience an aural delight.) Most of all, "Rocky" is just a heck of a lot of fun. It stands out as one of Fresno 's most distinctive theater experiences of the year.

Posted by
Donald Munro

See photos of A.R.T.'s Production of "The Rocky Horror Show"

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