BWW Review: Circle Players' 2019 Staging of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW Shouldn't Be Missed
Clint Randolph Directs What Amounts to a Perfect Ensemble in the Stage Classic
Truth be told, if I were governed by some sort of theatrical ethics committee, I probably shouldn't be reviewing Circle Players' latest iteration of Richard O'Brien's irreverent, off-kilter, wonderfully skewed and altogether classic musical The Rocky Horror Show. You see, way back in the day - some 17 years ago, during Circle's 54th anniversary season - I directed the very first company production of the ribald and rollicking show to great critical and audience acclaim (at least that's my story and I'm sticking to it - but we did win Best Musical from The Tennessean that year). And, let's face it, chances are nothing will ever live up to my recollections of the scandalously superb production that I brought to the stage of Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Johnson Theatre. Right? How could I possibly be objective?
But here's the thing: I love The Rocky Horror Show and Clint Randolph and his stellar ensemble of performers have won me over! Their 2019 production of The Rocky Horror Show is incredibly good, outlandishly fun and faithful to the material (that's become legendary, thanks to the 1975 film treatment that continues to pack 'em in at midnight showings all over the country, with countless shadow casts lip-synching their way through the show). Clearly, it ain't your grandma's musical theatre (well, actually, it is - seeing as how the show bowed in the West End in 1973 and played Broadway in 1975, concurrent with the release of the film version and, more to the point, when I graduated from high school - no wonder my back hurts), but it hews pretty damn close to traditional tropes with its boy and girl meet sweet transvestite/transsexual mastermind who's created a hot and hunky boytoy to satisfy his longings and, well, all hell breaks loose as their stories are told.
High-spirited and raucous, The Rocky Horror Show is inspired by countless B-movies of the 20th century (mostly dating from the 1930s through the 1950s) and it very skillfully and affectionately nods its elaborately made-up and dramatically coiffured head in the direction of those films with Richard O'Brien's out-of-this-world plotline and the colorful characters who populate every scene. Ranging from the morally upright/gratuitously uptight Brad and easily swayed yet hot-to-trot Janet, to the towering figure of the fishnet-stockinged Frank N Furter, the aforementioned scientific mastermind, and his boytoy, the eponymous Rocky Horror of the show's title, the musical is memorable from start to finish. And thanks to all those midnight screenings of the 1975 film, everyone knows the time-honored call and response moments that punctuate the onstage, onscreen scenes.
Audience participation is encouraged - Circle's selling goodie bags filled with all the necessary props out at the concession stand (which is conveniently located next to the cash bar - hallelujah!) - and fans are urged to shout out the beloved lines that have made a trip to see Rocky Horror such a wild and woolly experience. When it happens during the live performance, however, you have to remind yourself that this is not musical theater that you're accustomed to; rather, you have to give yourself over to the lovely people onstage and succumb to your baser instincts and let yourself go. That, along with "don't dream it, be it" is the true mantra of the cult of Rocky Horror and you're advised to go along for the ride of your life: Just pay attention to the directions of the show's narrator (Justin Barnett is wonderfully arch and wickedly funny in the role).
The show moves at a breakneck pace, thanks to Randolph's clever staging at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, and the action starts fast and furious after we're welcomed by the Usherettes (Schuyler Phoenix, Allison Truman and Steph Twomey), performing "Science Fiction Double Feature," while Brad and Janet (played with equal parts good-natured all-American charm and perhaps unexpected sensuality and sexiness by Bryan Royals and Emily Summers, who earlier this year starred in Circle's If/Then) are in the afterglow of Betty Monroe's wedding - spoiler alert: Janet catches the bouquet - and we're treated to "Damn it, Janet," one of the show's signature tunes.
Before you know it, we're already "Over At The Frankenstein Place," where all the expected hoopla takes place and we're introduced to the castle's extra-tall master/mistress (Barrett Thomas, who's at least 6'6" in his four-inch heels, is confident and cool as the deceptive and mysterious Frank N Furter) and his staff - and, lord knows, we love a staff - Riff-Raff (Blake Holliday), Magenta (Kaitlin Ladd) and Columbia (Poem Atkinson). Holliday, Ladd and Atkinson serve up some tremendous performances along with their genuine, if increasingly frightening, hospitality and they lead the ensemble of Phantoms and Transylvanians (which include Nathaniel Hulme and Jared Brooks among their number) in a show-stopping version of "Time Warp" that's sure to set your feet a-tapping in your seat (particularly if you've partaken of the cash bar out in the lobby, which you really should do in order to lubricate your senses).
By the time Frank N Furter reveals his beautifully conceived and winningly constructed Rocky Horror - who is played with laser-sharp focus and impeccable comic timing by the boyishly handsome Garrett Whitworth - you're going to be so enamored of the whole ensemble of players onstage that you'll follow them from here to some far off galaxy if they should choose you to accompany them on their starstruck journey. Just ignore the biker with the severed head (Eddie the rocker, played to perfection by Matthew Farinelli) and forget about the warnings issued by his uncle, the vaguely Germanic Dr. (Von) Scott (who, coincidentally, taught Brad and Janet at Denton High and is played by the spot-on T. Josiah Haynes).
The plot is totally unbelievable, of course, but it's great fun and enormously entertaining...you might think of it as an adult-styled cartoon of sorts that eschews traditional animation for live-action frivolity. The production's strongest element is Randolph's cast: they are so fucking good that I can't even remember who starred in my production (that's a lie, of course, but I am prone to exaggeration and the over-dramatic from time to time). Thomas is over-the-top terrific as Frank N Furter; Royals may have well inspired the character of Brad he is so perfect in his role; Summers is pretty and pert and easily led astray as Janet; Holliday creates an indelible impression as Riff-Raff; Ladd gives an unparalleled performance as Magenta; Atkinson is right on the money as Columbia; and Whitworth is the best Rocky Horror we've yet to encounter on any stage, anywhere.
Carter Wright's choreography is fun and energetic, and music director Roger N. Hutson and his band (Dale Herr, Tom D'Angelo, Dennis Palmer and Brian Jones) do justice to the show's rocking score, ensuring that you'll have a gay old time. Kristin DuBois' lighting design, Marcie Smith's set design, Denese Kelley's costumes and Sam Bartholomew's sound design add greatly to the show's overall visceral impact.
What else can we say to convince you to see The Rocky Horror Show? It's the perfect Halloween treat, to be certain, and it's a tremendous way to celebrate Circle Player's 70th - that's right, 70th - anniversary season. Get to it, earthlings.
The Rocky Horror Show. Book, music and lyrics by Richard O'Brien. Directed by Clint Randolph. Stage managed by Robyn Saunders. Musical direction by Roger N. Hutson. Choreography by Carter Wright. Presented by Circle Players, at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, Nashville. Through November 2. For details, go to www.circleplayers.net. Running time: 2 hours (including one 15-minute intermission).
photos by Carter Wright