“Anybody have a birthday today?” The young woman, a Transylvanian from the Planet Transsexual, calls out. She is wearing an excellent black leather corset and fishnet stockings, and her black makeup marks her eyes with lines in each direction, as if they were rifle scopes. It is seven o’clock, and the Rocky Horror crowd is settling in to Studio’s Metheny Theater. “Anybody celebrating an anniversary? A bar mitzvah?”
It turns out that there is a gentleman celebrating the anniversary of his birth, and two Transylvanians, naked except for their black jock straps, studded gloves and black boots, lead him to the stage. “We will sing the song you Earth people sing,” the young lady announces, and we dutifully comply. “Happy birthday to you,” we sing. “Happy birthday to you-u-u….”
Yes, we have – in an entirely unexpected way – done the time warp again, and Rocky Horror, so fresh and provocative and outrageous when it debuted forty years ago (No! Really?) has now become tame and domestic and – dare we say it? – cute. In 1973 – four years after the Stonewall Riots – it was transgressive to have a play about gay people (let alone something as exotic as transsexuals) – but to have a musical? Evoking a horror movie motif? And laughing? It was outrageous! And liberating.
And now? The revolution has come to pass and, as Elvis Costello put it, what were once vices are now habits. Forty years ago the idea that there was an alternative to a chaste marriage between a woman suppressing her robust sexuality and a closeted gay man was provocative, titillating, exciting. Today, it’s obvious.
So, because of the force of history and through no fault of this production, some of the oomph has gone out of this story. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun here, even if it’s closer to the fun one has at a victory party rather than on the cusp of a revolution. Studio’s Rocky Horror crackles with energy and invention, joy and savagery, and if there’s a little bit of self-satisfaction in it as well, it’s our self-satisfaction: we own it and we love it.
At bottom, Rocky Horror is the story of the seduction of drab Brad Majors (the silver-voiced Tim Rogan) and Janet Weiss (Jessica Thorne) to a life of vice, if we understand “vice” to mean “good sex” rather than, say, violations of the Ten Commandments or more exotic crimes, such as insurance fraud. Brad and Janet are a couple out of a Frankie Avalon movie (another reference familiar in 1973, but not 2013), eager to enter matrimony, which they understand to be a step along Brad’s progression on the corporate ladder. That Brad, who proposes determinedly in “Damn It, Janet,” lacks any sense of sexual passion is obvious to everyone but Janet, who swoops down on him for a kiss when she accepts his ring. Brad turns his head.
Brad and Janet shortly thereafter – pardon me if I rush through this – have a flat tire in a rainstorm near the castle of Dr. Frank N. Furter (Mitchell Jarvis); as they seek shelter it is clear that the doctor and his minions – principally Riff Raff (Matthew McGee), his sister Magenta (Kayla Dixon) and the great big hoochie-koochie girl Columbia (Matthew DeLorenzo) – have a brainstorm of their own: while preparing to animate the artificially-created body of Rocky Horror (William Hayes), who is to be the good Doctor’s life partner, they will also have their way(s) with their rain-soaked guests. In the meantime, a past lover of Dr. Furter – pizza delivery guy Eddie (Matthew G. Myers) – proves troublesome, at least until our Frank goes all Texas Chainsaw Massacre upside his head.
Such an elevated tale requires a third-person narrator, and so the distinguished commentator Sarah Marshall emerges to provide exposition. She doubles as the wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott – a friend of Brad and Janet, and an enemy of Dr. Furter. Once within the Furter lair, she evokes Dr. Strangelove with a Hitlerian moustache and strange twitches and quirks.
Perhaps in recognition of the musical’s lessening intrinsic impact, Jarvis and co-directors Keith Alan Baker and Alan Paul give us a particularly carnivorous Frank N. Furter, whose fierce sexuality is matched by his slavering, lip-smacking enthusiasm for excess in every conceivable category, including murder. Those of you who remember Tim Curry’s performance in the film (or in the original production in England or Los Angeles) may recall the character as sophisticated, smooth and charismatic, but Jarvis’ Frank N. Furter would bite you in the face, and be glad of it.
The high-energy generosity of spirit which animates Jarvis’ performance also characterizes much of the rest of the production, including McGee’s Riff Raff, who is both humble and dangerous (setting up a final confrontation) and the hilarious Marshall. Dixon’s Magenta takes a while to warm up, but by the time she is done she is magnificent. And Hayes – who looks like a compact version of the great Russian wrestler and poet Alexsandr Karelin, who won three Olympic Gold medals without giving up a single point – is astonishing in the title role. He performs amazing acrobatic feats with seeming ease, but never loses his expression of dim confusion as he seeks to sort out who he is and who he is supposed to love.
Jessica Thorne, as the frumpy fifties girl who becomes an apostle of sexual heat, never really catches fire until she sings “Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch Me” in the embrace of the suddenly insatiable Rocky Horror. But I suppose this is the point: like Brad, whose destiny is to be, well, a man among men, Janet never becomes herself until she…becomes herself.
The Rocky Horror Show
Closes August 4, 2013
1501 14th St. NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $45
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
For a show in which the eleven o’clock song comes on at about seven thirty, Rocky Horror is a surprisingly disciplined exercise, and never more so than in Michael Bobbitt’s powerful choreography. The stage at Matheny – more than adequate for most non-musicals – is a real space challenge for a production the scope of Rocky Horror, which has nineteen characters as well as a six-person band.
Although Giorgos Tsappas’ two-level set helps, it is not a complete answer, as virtually all the choreography takes place at stage level. No, Bobbitt has somehow created the illusion that his army of acrobatic dancers are flying through space, when in fact they are leaping over each other. Bobbitt is a significant player in the world of children’s theater and notable as a director and adapter, but among all his virtues, it is choreography that he does best, and it is time to talk about his work in the same breath we use to talk about Tsikurishvilli and Hines.
Similarly, Baker and Paul stage their production in a way that turns the limits of the space into an asset. In particular, they brilliantly engage their chorus around the perimeters of the theater, so that we are in the middle of it all.
Studio’s Rocky Horror harvests every moment of pleasure out of the text. It cannot, alas, bring the excitement of the past back to us. We’re just going to have to find a new way to rock the boat.
The Rocky Horror Show . book, music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien . directed by Keith Alan Baker and Alan Paul . assisted by Solomon HalleSelassie . Musical Direction by George Fulginiti-Shakar .Choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt . Featuring Mitchell Jarvis, Sarah Marshall, Jessica Thorne, Tim Rogan, Matthew McGee, Kayla Dixon, Matthew DeLorenzo, William Hayes, Matthew G. Myers, Sherry Berg, Aaren Keith, Ashleigh King, David Landstrom, David Little, Victor Maldonado, Nora Palka, Chris Rudy, Matthew Wojtal and Jaysen Wright.
The band includes Fulginiti-Shakar on keyboards, Alexander Greenberg on synthesizer, Mark Carson on drums, Patrick Plunk on tenor saxophone, Rob Mueller on guitar and Yusef Chisholm on bass. Set design by Giorgos Tsappas, assisted by Deborah Thomas, lighting design by Justin Thomas, assisted by Ben Doehr, video and projections design by Erik Trester, costume design by Collin Ranney, sound design by Jeffrey Dorfman. Bret Borak was the live mix and audio engineer; Eric Arnold was the stage manager.
Trey Graham . City Paper
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
April Forrer . MdTheatreGuide
Jeffrey Walker . BroadwayWorld
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Peter Marks . Washington Post
The Theater Gay . BrightestYoungThings
John Stoltenberg . MagicTime!
David Friscic . DCMetroTheaterArts