Theater Review: A “Rocky Horror Show” — Tailored for Gen Z
By David Greenham
This Rocky Horror Show for the Gen Z set contains (at least potentially) enough flash and zap to successfully put across a new take on a campy cult classic.
The Rocky Horror Show by Richard O’Brien. Directed by Jo Michael Rezes and Lee Mikeska Gardner. Music direction by Jack Cline (Performances) and Sandy Sahar Gooen (Rehearsals). Choreography by Ilyse Robbins. Scenic design by Allison Olivia Choat. Costume design by Leslie Held. Lighting design by Finn Bamber. Sound design by Anna Drummond. Staged by Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through December 3.
Half a century ago, when out-of-work actor Richard O’Brien was writing The Rocky Horror Show, he wouldn’t have dreamed that that material would become a worldwide phenomenon. But this goofy sci-fi tale of Brad and Janet meeting Dr. Frank-N-Furter, “the sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania” has become an iconic part of the cultural landscape. It premiered in the summer of 1973 on a shoestring budget in an experimental space at London’s Royal Court Theater. It became a monstrous, instant hit.
Central Square Theater has revved up its tractor beam and transported a reenvisioned version of the show for a new generation of “Rocky” fans. This updated production offers a nostalgic nod to the show’s humble roots while it also reflects contemporary reality with a lineup of cast and crew members who are a part of the transgender and gender nonconforming community.
If you’ve only seen the movie version, you’ll quickly see that the stage show is different in many ways. Still, the basic structure of the story is the same.
Nerdy Brad (Michael J. Mahoney) and his innocent fiancée Janet (Emma Na-yun Downs) find themselves stranded on a stormy night after their car gets a flat. They arrive at a spooky castle and ask to use the phone. There they meet the unusual trio of Riff Raff (Max Jackson), Magenta (Matti Steriti), and Columbia (Nico Ochoa). All of these creatures work for Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Sebastian Crane), who is building a Frankenstein-like man, Rocky (Jack Chylinski), in his lab. Along the way we meet Dr. Scott and his doomed son, Eddie. (Both played by Jacques Matellus.)
The Rocky Horror Show, as well as its cult film adaptation, suffers from the need to bring in a narrator to explain the bizarre world O’Brien has created. The boldest choice I’ve seen for an emcee is a 2000 Circle in the Square production that run for a couple of years: it featured Dick Cavett as the mansplainer. The casting decision also compensated for one of the show’s major weaknesses: the second act lacks the punch and amusing surprises of the first act. Commentator Cavett could spice things up with ad-libs, cracking jokes about politics and other issues of the day.
The Central Square Theater production doesn’t have that kind of comic reinforcement, so the production takes a tag-team approach: Matellus covers opening scenes (during “The Time Warp”) while band frontwoman Zoë Ravenwood steps up to “elucidate” the rest. Alas, this does not solve the dramaturgical problem: the second half of the story is still pretty punchless. It’s got the feel of a boulder slowly rolling down a mountain side, picking up a little speed along the way until the inevitable crash comes.
Also problematic: the production’s desire to embrace a do-it-yourself approach, a humility that ends up corner-cutting on the technical elements of the production. Allison Olivia Choat’s set nods to mad scientist low-tech; this is a lab that, along with its doodads and blinking gizmos, features aluminum dryer vent hoses and a discarded Coke machine. The façade is framed by lightning-like cutouts that have been colorfully lit by Finn Bamber’s lights. But Bamber misses a ripe opportunity for a light show, given that there is an explosion at the end, the lab and its occupants blasting off toward their home planet.
Leslie Held’s customary talent for creating stunning and well-conceived costumes is undermined by this “primitive” approach. While some of the costumes are spectacular, others seem to have been thrown together. This is a missed opportunity for a show that invites audience members to come to the theater dressed up in the kind of bizarre garb that would meld with the gauche proceedings.
Most problematic is Anna Drummond’s sound, which is muddy and unbalanced at times — despite live mixing by Kai Bohlman.
With the show’s tech elements coming off as scattershot and underwhelming, the hard work of driving the production is left to the cast. Happily, the famous production numbers are strong, thanks to the high energy of Ilyse Robbins’s energetic choreography.
Once again, Central Square Theater artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardiner has staked out her devotion to inclusivity via the casting and staff hires. It is not only in the area of LGBTQ+, given the presence of transgender and gender nonconforming artists, but also the inclusion of Matellus — a disabled actor who uses a motorized wheelchair — in the role of the narrator, Eddie, and Dr. Scott. He was especially fun in the part of Dr. Scott.
Other standouts include Michael J. Mahoney as Brad. In the film version, Brad is mostly ignored after the opening scenes, but the musical gives Brad a song, “Once in a While,” which was cut from the film. Music director Sandy Sahar Gooen gives the tune a bouncy calypso feel. Mahoney knocks the number out of the park.
Nico Ochoa’s Columbia also scores high marks for their indefatigable enthusiasm. They provide the kind of spark plug that’s needed to keep the Rocky Horror engine roaring.
As Rocky, Jack Chylinski isn’t quite the bodybuilder that you’d expect, but he succeeds where so many other Rocky’s fail: he’s charming and likable.
Still, The Rocky Horror Show is only completely successful if it’s a true ensemble effort. On opening night this at times sluggish production fell short of that goal. The group rarely supplied the required megawatts of wild and untamed energy the silliness demands. Everyone was at the right place at the right time and the choreography and stage pictures were generally clean, but a number of the cast members were a notch below what’s needed. But I am confident that that will come with time.
This Rocky Horror Show for the Gen Z set contains (at least potentially) enough flash and zap to successfully put across a new take on a campy cult classic. The evening is not astounding, but it is an effective reminder that time is fleeting. And, if you’re been watching the news, madness is taking a considerable toll. So it makes sense to grab a costume and head on over to Central Square Theater and do the time warp once again. It’s just a jump to the left….
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the former executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.