Hot men and women in sensuous, black corsets of torn lace and slicked leather who are raised on high by heeled boots, all singing and dancing in rock numbers that are precursors of later musicals like Grease or Hairspray can mean only one thing: The Rocky Horror Show is yet once again in revival. Generations of costumed, crazed audiences around the world have sustained decades of infatuation for this 1973 West End musical as they come dressed in hole-infested stockings and darkened make-up, talk back to actors in unrehearsed unison, and dance to the well-known line steps of “Time Warp.”
While there is always some camp involved in any Rocky live staging or screen showing, Ray of Light’s version of Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show has for the last five years always proven to be first-class musical theatre. Bringing together a stellar cast, eye-popping costumes, electric choreography, lighting and sound exactness, and a group of musicians that play ‘70s-era rock like nobody’s business, the Ray of Light’s fifth annual Rocky – and as announced, its final – proves once again to be a San Francisco Halloween treat.
On a dark and stormy night along a lonely patch of road, just-engaged Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, who look like they stepped out of a early 70s Young Republicans meeting or an ad from a Sears and Roebuck catalogue, find themselves with a flat tire. Flashing lights from a nearby castle draw them nervously into shelter from the downpour. A blue-lipped, black-lashed butler named Riff Raff and his sister Magenta, a frizzy-haired, wild-eyed and snarling maid, greet their knock on the door. Nervous, Brad and Janet enter a house full of roaming, all-too-curious, scantily-clad Phantoms of questionable gender. They are soon introduced to a mad scientist in black net stockings and tight corset, Frank-n-Furter, who describes himself as a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.”
As they are stripped of wet clothes to their underwear by the grabby Phantoms, Janet and Brad become swept up in a grizzly murder of Frank’s former lover Eddie (already missing half his brain from an earlier operation by Frank) and the laboratory birth of a muscularly perfect and oh-so tanned Rocky (conceived to become Frank’s new beau). The two are then led to separate, upstairs bedrooms while Frank imagines his upcoming nuptials with the biceps-popping, sexy, and already frisky Rocky. But night’s dreams are not going to play out just in Janet’s and Brad’s sleeping heads but instead become live-sex fantasies their former, straight-laced selves could never have imagined. The night ahead will bring more surprises, twists, and turns for all inhabitants, including Frank, in this other-worldly mansion.
All of these fantastical scenes – over-flowing with every sexual perversion and manner of undress imaginable – are musically punctuated by rock numbers right off a 45 RPM record, close harmonies both eerie and beautiful and soaring solos that moan and haunt. To complete the telling of this space-warped tale are sexy, snappy, and highly coordinated dance numbers by a chorus of pan-gendered honeys in sets of high-heeled boots and stilettos. Alex Rodriguez terrifically and terrifyingly choreographs this cast of phantoms to resemble a bizarre mixture of frenzied teens at a high school dance pumping with raging hormones and of drugged and drunken revelers rambling through streets looking for trouble.
Alex Rodriguez doubles as also stage director, pulling every stop possible to tantalize, fascinate, and excite an audience that is already buzzing with excitement upon entering. Use of a massive turntable ups the game for the director’s creativity of presenting over-lapping scenes and ever-changing groupings in dance numbers.
Scattered among scenes that are XXX-rated with their graphic, shadow-play sex or their crotch-and-breast grabbing antics are a director’s comic touches like ensemble members becoming a car’s body and swishing windshield wiper or a castle’s doorway with a cheeky doorbell. The stage of stairs dripping in flickering candles designed by Peet Cocke is enhanced magnificently by John Bernard’s lighting surprises. A storm’s thunder peals shake the arena thanks to Jerry Girard’s sound design, with his expert attention to the quirky Victoria Theatre’s acoustics paying off as the lyrics of the oft-fast-moving songs are clearly understood, even amidst all the frenzy occurring on-stage. The sounds of Steven Bolinger’s five-piece band rock are superb, with Tom Shaw’s piano-plucking particularly standing out. And this or any Rocky production is nothing without the required skimpy, imaginative, and titillating costumes; Maggie Whitaker keeps that tradition alive and more with costumes that are designed to be both silly and shocking.
Just as he has for the past four years, D’Arcy Drollinger is the gender-blending, horror-and-humor-mixing, and tongue-slurping Frank-n-Furter whose gigantic presence on the stage reigns supreme. D’Arcy is both King and Queen (and everything in between) when it comes to his drippy sultriness, provocative plunges and spasms, and sensuality that altogether is both alarming and attractive. More than ever, D’Arcy in this latest venture knows how to camp it up and go for the laughs, particularly every time Frank-n-Furter attempts to ascend or descend the many and steep steps of the set. With a voice that can belt with bombastic blasts (as in “Sweet Transvestite”) or lure in its victim with dripping tones of perverted promise (“I can make you a man” in “Charles Atlas”), this Frank-n-Furter is always deservedly the star on stage.
His castle cohorts are equally well-suited to shock and satisfy. Randy O’Hara as Riff Raff, Jocelyn Pickett as Magenta, and Melinda Campero as Columbia all bring rock-star-worthy voices with notes that cut with exacting clarity as they each lead the troupe in “Time Warp.” In the skimpiest of gold Spandex shorts and with bulging crotch, super-toned Joseph Feldman literally shines as the lab-manufactured Rocky. When he sings soon after his electrified birth “The Sword of Damocles” as he foresees his own precarious future, his Rocky sings with a voice vibrant, exciting, and almost as attention-grabbing as is his bare, hunky bod. Not to be out-done, the corpse half of whose brain Rocky now shares – Eddie, former lover of both Rocky and Columbia – suddenly makes a short-lived resurrection when John Flaw electrifies the audience with a “Hot Patootie” as he totally convinces us, “Bless my soul, I really love that rock and roll.” (Later, John Flaw will arrive at the castle in wheel chair as Brad and Janet’s former teacher, Dr. Scott.)
Caleb Haven Draper and Courtney Merrell play with full aplomb the Brad-Janet duo. From their well-sung “Damn-It Janet” in which love is professed with youthful, emphatic sincerity to later numbers where clothes and inhibitions are shed and tempos intensified, the two make us believe their initial fears, their middle curiosities, and their later hedonistic enjoyments. Janet particularly is spectacular each time she steps forward to sing in a voice that pierces the air with its attractive clarity, as in the steamy seduction of an excited Rocky in “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me.” Brad’s mournful, contemplative “Once in a While” has moments of hitting the mark, but this Brad throughout the night overall does not measure up to the rest of the cast, vocally. However, in their characterizations of Brad and Janet, both actors cross successfully through the evening many emotional thresholds while still remaining true at the core to that naïve, small-town couple we meet in the beginning.
Throughout the evening, J. Conrad Frank appears as the oh-so-elegantly dressed Narrator, looking in dress, hair, and pointy glasses like Dame Edna’s twin sister. The Narrator has an ongoing battle with various audience members who anticipate in cat-calls her next lines with questions and comments meant to egg her on; but the battle is all in good and expected fun of being at a Rocky Horror Show.
The Second Act of Rocky never seems to live up to the First as storyline always peters out a bit. However, just as the ROL cast and directors have done since the first show five years ago, this production overcomes that built-in deficit with well-paced and creative direction. A rousing and arousing “The Floor Show” features high-heeled soloists (Columbia, Rocky, Janet, and Brad) in scanty pink and sparkling silver singing with piercingly pleasing voices before Frank-n-Furter emerges to have an “Ursula” moment with long tentacles of swirling silk emanating from the now-pink-haired castle ruler. Later, Frank-n-Furter’s desperate plea for a home among his earthly pleasures and playthings in “I’m Going Home” provides D’Arcy a chance truly to prove his vocal prowess and power as Frank-n-Futer sings an emotional “I’ve seen blue skies through the tears in my eyes, and I realize I’m going home.”
For anyone who is going to see The Rocky Horror Show for the first time, I suggest reading a plot synopsis ahead of time. Some of the story’s strange details get too easily lost, especially when both the dialogue and the songs on stage are so often interrupted by audience members’ taunts, questions, and comments that are traditionally a part of a Rocky evening, making it somewhat difficult for the first-timer to figure out just what is going on.
So with some sadness but much appreciation, we say farewell to Ray of Light’s five-year run of The Rocky Horror Show. What better way to celebrate the Halloween season that to catch one of the remaining shows before the spaceship takes off to Transsexual, Transylvania for its final journey home in outer, outer space.
Rating: 4 E
The Rocky Horror Show continues through November 2, 2019 in production by Ray of Light Theatre at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://rayoflighttheatre.com/.
Photos by Nick Otto