Review: THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW at Central Square Theater

Cult classic musical runs through November 26

By: Nov. 07, 2023
Review: THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW at Central Square Theater

It’s time to break out the lace corsets, black fishnet stockings, sparkly short shorts, satin brassieres, and red lipstick – “The Rocky Horror Show” is back in Cambridge, this time at Central Square Theater (CST), where a quirky, funny, and meaningful staging of composer, lyricist, and writer Richard O’Brien’s musical comedy homage to kitschy science fiction and horror movies runs through November 26.

The production keeps alive a decades-long Cambridge tradition, dating back to when the cult-classic 1975 feature film version, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” – with Tim Curry starring alongside a cast that also included O’Brien, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, and Meat Loaf – first spawned midnight movie screenings nationwide, including at the Harvard Square Theater for 28 years until the multiplex closed in 2012, and later live mountings.

The film was based on the stage musical – a tale of a young couple whose lives are upended when they cross paths with a pansexual cross-dressing mad scientist from Transvestite, Transylvania – which was first produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1973 and then at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre in 1975.

If the recent press-night performance at CST is any indication, audiences for both film screenings and live productions are similarly enthusiastic, but with one well-considered exception. In the early days of the midnight movie showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” audiences would throw toast, water, toilet paper, hot dogs, and rice at the screen.          

The audience at Central Square refrained from hurling anything at the stage or the cast, save for rousing applause and the requisite Rocky Horror callbacks, and allowed the cast do its stuff in telling the story that starts when a besotted couple, Brad and Janet, tooling along a dark road on a stormy night, get a flat tire that leaves them at the spooky residence of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, where they are seduced by all the trappings of his B-movie horror-film castle including its motley crew.

Co-directors Lee Mikesa Gardner, CST Artistic Director, and Jo Michael Rezes, a nonbinary theater and transmedia artist, lead a production team and cast, more than half of whom are part of the TGNC (Transgender and Gender Nonconforming) community, in a fresh take on the now-iconic subject matter. Indeed, credited with having a positive influence on the countercultural and sexual liberation movements of the time, the show – which has been produced worldwide – was one of the first popular musicals to depict fluid sexuality and the acceptance of sexual difference.

At CST, the show’s delivery of its still timely message is fueled by the energy of an exuberant young cast led by Sebastian Crane as the delightfully deranged mad scientist Frank-N-Furter, who pops up everywhere like a jack-in-the-box, his confident perversion coming to life through a combination of devilish wit and knowing glances, aided by some wild ensembles by costumer designer Leslie Held.

Michael J. Mahoney (Brad) and Emma Na-yun Downs (Janet) are laugh-out-loud funny as the newly engaged couple (“Dammit Janet”) whose complete lack of guile allows them to freely navigate between curiosity and disdain. Evoking a young Rick Moranis, Mahoney is especially good on his affecting solo, “Once in a While.” And Downs is hilarious to watch as Janet morphs from a buttoned-up bride-to-be to a “slut,” garbed in bra and panties, who gets busy with Frank-N-Furter on “Touch-a Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me.”

As an “Usherette” and narrator, Zoë Ravenwood never misses a beat, singing, playing and leading a terrific three-piece band that gets the audience involved from the outset and helps them stay that way. Nico Ochoa and Matti Steriti are not only the band’s other musically gifted Usherettes, but also contribute to the story as unlucky-in-love groupie Columbia and mean maid Magenta, respectively.

Jacques Matellus, playing both Eddie & Dr. Scott, uses his versatile voice and expressive face to wonderful effect. When he’s not on stage, you’ll probably find yourself looking forward to his return. As Rocky, Frank-N-Furter’s lab-created “perfect man,” Jack Chylinski employs charm and wide-eyed wonder to convey the innocence that so often spells trouble for his character. Max Jackson keeps the creep factor up, as Magenta’s appropriately named brother, Riff Raff.

Presented thrust-style with the audience on three sides, and only sparse scenic design by Allison Olivia Choat, the action sometimes seems adrift on the vast stage. Every bit of that space is needed, however, for the show’s finale, a rousing all-company reprise of  “Time Warp.” Cleverly choreographed by Ilyse Robbins, the musical’s signature song includes an invitation for audience members to join the cast on stage and let loose in song and dance, which they do with joyous abandon.

Photo caption: Nico Ochoa, Sebastian Crane, and Matti Steriti in a scene from the Central Square Theater production of Richard O’Brien’s “The Rocky Horror Show.” Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

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