BWW Review: THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW at San Jose Stage Company Does the Time Warp Again
Watching Richard O'Brien's "The Rocky Horror Show" at San Jose Stage Company, I was struck by what an odd duck the show is. There really is nothing else even remotely like it in the musical theater canon. At this point in its stage-to-screen-back-to-stage evolution, it invites you not just to experience the live stage play unfolding in front of you, but also encourages you to re-enact own your own experience of having seen the movie, probably decades ago. To aid in the latter, goody bags including all the necessary accoutrements such as newspaper, squirt guns, toilet paper, etc. are available in the lobby at 5 bucks a pop. Audience members gleefully shout out all the expected callbacks from midnight screenings of yore ("Asshole!", "Slut!") while engaging in a playful competition to come up with the most clever and unexpected contemporary retorts. Surely audiences in the late 1970's did not reference such things as Mar-a-Lago. So here we have a show set more or less in the 1950's, written in the 1970's, and with references to 2019. Talk about your time warp!
I think it's safe to assume that if you're reading this review you already know the plot of "Rocky Horror." And if you don't, so as not to spoil any surprises, let's just say it involves innocence lost, sexual hijinks of all kinds, a mad scientist, gender fluidity and retro rock 'n' roll, all within a 1950's sci-fi monster film milieu. Got that? To be honest, the story always stops making complete sense to me midway through Act II anyway, at which point it's best to just let go of any logic and give yourself over to the exuberance of the whole endeavor. The show's chief assets after all are its irresistibly tuneful score, playful sexuality and overall cheeky vibe. San Jose Stage's production doesn't attempt to reinvent the wheel so much as to provide the experience fans of the show probably came for. Its main pleasure is the opportunity to see the show you remember, presented in an intimate setting by skilled performers who themselves appear to be having a great deal of fun.
Director Allison F. Rich has succeeded in getting all her actors on the same page in terms of tone, which is key for a wack-a-doo show like this. Everyone moves and sings well, and knows just how far to go in presenting outré sexuality without crossing over to an "icky" place. Ms. Rich also capably plays the roles of Usherette & Magenta, the former of whom opens and closes the show. I'm not convinced Ms. Rich is the true rocker chick the latter role requires, but she fakes it well enough. Ashley Garlick and Parker Harris are all nubile innocence as the couple lured into this den of iniquity. Ms. Garlick, who also designed the costumes, gets extra marks for wearing essentially just a bra, girdle and stockings for most of the show with such dignity. Mr. Harris is particularly delightful once his character has been debauched and gets to show off some loopy dance moves. As for Matthew Kropschot as Rocky, let's just say I assume he was cast more for his physical attributes than for his vocal abilities, and on that count he delivers in spades. The most successful performance is by Sean Okuniewicz as Riff Raff. He's all offbeat timing and quirky body angles, somehow managing to be both delightfully endearing and just a little frightening at the same time.
Of course, the ultimate success of any production of "Rocky Horror" eventually rests on its "sweet transvestite" Frank 'N' Furter, the role that brought Tim Curry a level of stardom he never surpassed. The undeniably talented Keith Pinto is giving it his all while still negotiating some of the role's trickier elements. On the plus side, he totally gets the character, looks smashing in a bustier and fishnets, and largely moves exceptionally well. On the minus side, his tenor isn't the most natural fit for this baritone role, and his physicality tenses up just a tiny bit whenever he's required to cross the large playing area or navigate stairs in rather unwieldy platform heels. His performance is also hampered by the design choice to have Frank 'N' Furter (and Magenta & Riff Raff) wear iridescent contact lenses. Yes, I get that they indicate the alien nature of the character, but they also create a distancing effect that undercuts the visceral connection between audience and actor.
Scenic Designer Robert Pickering provides a simple but effective set consisting mainly of video monitors cleverly disguised as both a film screen and oversized strips of celluloid, blood red curtains and a backdrop of iron gates that employ art deco-ish geometry to suggest a giant spider web. Ashley Garlick's costumes riff inventively on an array of corsets, bustiers, ripped fishnets and other assorted undergarments, mostly in a palette of black, red and white. She deserves major props for how well the costumes fit. It is no mean feat to put your actors in skimpy clothing that shows just enough skin without us - or them - ever worrying that we're on the verge of a wardrobe malfunction. Just the fact that the title character's sparkly gold bikini briefs look great from all angles while allowing the actor to move freely says a lot.
So, in the end, is this "Rocky Horror" a must-see? For a neophyte, not necessarily. But, if you're already a fan of the show - and let's face it, you know who you are - then by all means go. You'll probably have a blast.
Photos by Dave Lepori
"The Rocky Horror Show" runs through Sunday, November 3rd at the San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. 1st Street, San Jose, CA 95113. Running time is 2 hours, including one intermission. Tickets and further information are available at www.thestage.org or by calling (408) 283-7142.