BWW Review: THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW at Ray Of Light Theatre Totally Rocks the House
Ray of Light's (ROL's) production of The Rocky Horror Show filled me with hope for the youth of America. Lest that sound a bit strange, allow me to explain. Yes, ROL's "Rocky" delivers in spades on the sexy entertainment value of this transgressive, go-for-broke show. But - it is also grounded in layers and layers of queer showbiz history even though it is presented by performers and designers who are way too young to have been around for the real thing. Taking the written-in-the-1970s-but-set-in-the-1950s show as its starting point, this production adds loopy gay cultural references from the 1930s right up to the present day - as if concocted by some crazed drag queen and thrown into a blender to see if it will explode. Surprisingly, it never does and it somehow all works. Although this is ROL's fifth - and final! - year of doing "Rocky Horror," it all feels fresh and alive and daringly in the moment. There are many moments when the actors are going at it with such abandon that you may ask yourself if a certain bit was scripted or a mistake. The truth is we'll never know. And it really doesn't matter.
The production seems to emanate organically from its natural surrounds in San Francisco's funky Inner Mission district. The Victoria Theatre - that grungy, decaying ex-vaudeville house - has never been put to better use. Entering the theater, you notice various people dressed as characters from the show, and wonder "Are those audience members or actors?" The answer turns out to be both. The show itself begins as the stage fills with multi-colored haze and some of those costumed individuals take the stage through the audience to perform the opening number. From there the show builds and morphs to include all manner of production numbers, solos and, well, everything in between.
I really can't say enough about director/choreographer Alex Rodriguez' work here. He gives the whole thing an edge than keeps you wondering what's going to happen next, not a small accomplishment in a show that is almost 50 years old and many in the audience already know by heart. And between the big numbers, he makes economy a virtue by cleverly employing his actors to become, say, a car or the front door to the castle. Yes, I think he gives the cast a little too much latitude in some drawn-out schtick in the second act, but that again reinforces the underlying drag ethos of "too much is never enough." His choreography for "Time Warp" is the best I've ever seen for that number, with a nifty shimmy on the title phrase that feels contemporary while recalling every "Soul Train" or "Solid Gold Dancer" routine you ever saw.
The performances are captivating across the board, with a level of commitment and delight in delivering the goods that is a joy to behold. To single out just a few, Caleb Haven Draper and Courtney Merrell as the erstwhile virginal couple Brad and Janet do a terrific job kicking off the narrative and providing a continuing through line as their characters keep reaching new levels of debauchery. I was fascinated by Mr. Draper as he seemed to be channeling the kind of stock-in-trade 1950's male ingenue role minted by Russell Nype (see his iconic duet with Elaine Stritch from Call Me Madam here). This makes his eventual descent into dissolution all the more delicious to witness. Another standout is J. Conrad Frank as the Narrator. What a great idea to have this originally professorial male role played as an old-school drag queen, with all the showbiz know-how and cracker jack timing that brings to the party. Mx. Frank plays the Narrator as a Lypsinka-adjacent amalgam of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and every B-film diva you've never heard of. With jaundiced eye and permanently arched eyebrow, Frank commands the stage, tossing out perfectly-timed ripostes to the callbacks, unexpected and not, from the audience.
D'Arcy Drollinger is a wonder as Frank-N-Furter. He takes the basic blueprint laid down by Tim Curry back in the 70's and runs with it, making the character fully his own and coming across as both more androgynous and more dangerous in the bargain. As he stalks the stage in platform heels, there is never any doubt that he rules this roost. And there is a looseness and playfulness to his performance that keeps things interesting. You never know what he's going to do next, even as you wait with breathless antici......pation to find out.
The design credits are all superb. Peet Cocke's set mainly consists of large scenic elements such as two sets of crimson velvet drapes that fit like a glove within the proportions of the Victoria's proscenium arch, and a wide, vertiginous staircase lined with clusters of over-sized melting white candles. A large turntable that director Rodriguez puts to effective and witty use allows scenes to effortlessly morph from one to another without ever needing to trundle on a big set piece or lower a curtain. Aided by the liberal use of stage fog, lighting designer John Bernard envelops the stage in a fabulous, textured, multi-colored mist that creates the illusion of great depth. Bernard also gives the bigger numbers sudden swooshes of arena concert-style lighting which is so appropriate given that these characters are all rock stars in their own minds. Maggie Whitaker's costumes are a hoot, a riotous mashup of goth, steampunk, mid-century sci-fi and MGM technicolor. She deserves a special shout out for the Narrator's second act outfit which cribs from the iconic eyeball dress worn by Roz Russell in in 1939's The Women, arguably one of the gayest movies ever made. And Frank-N-Furter's platinum wig for the finale makes him look enticingly akin to Lady Gaga, thus throwing in a more recent nod to queer iconography.
As the audience files out at the end, we transition from the faux grunge of "Rocky Horror" to the real grunge of the Mission, and the whole evening feels like a continuum. In this Bay Area season of three different "Rocky Horror" productions all within the matter of months, this one will be hard to top. The venerable ACT will weigh in with their version in the Spring, but something tells me ROL's is the one to see. You'll have to hurry, though, as the production only runs through November 2nd.
Photos by Nick Otto
Ray of Light Theatre's production of The Rocky Horror Show runs through Saturday, November 2nd at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco, CA. Running time is approximately two hours and fifteen minutes. Tickets and further information are available at www.rayoflight.theatre.com.