Monday, December 04, 2006

Rocky Horror Show (Cleveland Public Theatre)

‘ROCKY HORROR’ very rocky at CPT

In 1973, while on a trip to England, I saw the ‘ROCKY HORROR SHOW’ during its first week of production. It was a wild and wonderful experience. The creativity, vitality, and breaking down traditional theatre walls (literally and figuratively) are forever etched in my brain.

Many are surprised to know that the Richard O’Brien script began as a play, not as a film. O’Brien had a life-long passion for schlocky horror movies. He also had a flare for writing. While appearing in a production of ‘JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’ in London, he produced a 3-chord rock musical entitled ‘THEY CAME FROM DENTON HIGH’ in a small space above the theatre where Superstar was playing. Redubbed ‘THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW,’ the play is based on a combination of grade B Horror movies, Steve Reeve’s muscle flicks and fifties rock 'n' roll. It starred Tim Curry, who had appeared with O’Brien in a production of ‘HAIR,’ as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a kinky scientist who creates "Rocky Horror", his personal Adonis.

The play, which opened as a six-week workshop project, got fantastic reviews and packed houses. It was named Best Musical of 1973 in the London Evening Standard's annual poll of drama critics.

But, all was not success. A Broadway version of the play flopped, running only forty five performances. A film, which had been made shortly before the New York opening, also bombed except in New York and LA.

But all was not lost. A marketing director came up with the idea of running it as a midnight movie. The film was reformatted, became a cult hit complete with audience members showing up dressed like the film’s characters and making sound effects and yelling out lines and doing the film’s famous “Time Warp” dance as the movie rolled. The rest, including a 2000 Broadway revival, is cult history.

Cleveland Public Theatre has decided to take on this cult-rock musical. Based on its past history of staging edgy shows such as ‘HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY ITCH,’ ‘VARLA JEAN,’ and ‘CONFESSIONS OF PUNCH AND JUDY,’ it would seem CPT would be the logical place for the staging.

Unfortunately, their production is off the mark. Though it seems like a romp, this is not an easy script to stage. The characters must be clearly etched and done with exaggerated realism. There has to be a total over-the-top staging within a well thought-out concept.

The production has lots of gimmicks, many of which are misguided (e.g., the gross yelling out by the band and others off stage which, I assume, were intended to be clever, but did little but distract from the on-stage action.) The performances go from good to bad. The poor sound system and the size of the venue makes for difficult hearing and echos that mute the lyrics and spoken dialogue. But, mainly, the production lacks focus.

Scott Plate is one of the area’s best actors and his previous directing forays were excellent. In spite of his fine director’s comments in the program, he seemed overwhelmed with this script. He made several questionable decisions, including deciding to gender bend the casting. This technique often works. For example, CPT’s ‘M4M’ did it with great success. In this case, however, it didn’t work and seemed like a gimmick for gimmick’s sake. Sometimes the gender references in songs made for confusion when applied to the “wrong” sex such as having Rocky, the supposedly perfectly formed male specimen played by a woman. In other cases, the result was blatantly homoerotic which rather than enhancing the decadence of the already decadent piece, seemed forced.

Andrew Marikis and Liz Conway were excellent as the naive, nerdy Brad and Janet. They both sing well and could be understood, a quality not present with some of the other cast members. Alison Garigan, who seems to have been born with an edge, didn’t reek with her usual sexuality. If anything, she was too restrained.

Carlos Antonio Cruz and James Ronald Jones II as Magenta and Riff Raff, were almost unintelligible. Very few of their lines or lyrics could be understood. Amy Bistok’s Narrator lacked character. She often sounded like she was reading blandly from a phone book. Amy Pawlukiewicz didn’t have the necessary physical presence needed for the role of Rocky. On the other hand, Elizabeth Wood was Shirley Temple adorable as Columbia.

The highlight of the production was The Phantoms, Brad Wyner’s rock group. I wish that these talented guys had just played a concert of the show’s score. That would have been worth sitting through in the very cold, cavernous, near-empty theatre.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In my long history of theatre commentary, I have never walked out of a show that I have reviewed before it was over. I left the CPT production of ‘THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW’ at intermission. ‘Nuff said.

‘THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW’ runs through December 23 at CPT’. For tickets call 216 631-2727.