Everybody who left the Old Town Theatre house during opening-night break missed one of the most important elements to Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show, the current and much-anticipated entry from Cygnet Theatre Company. The bed featured “Suffragette City,” a single by ’70s/’80s glam giant David Bowie, without whose colossal mark on music the play might never have had a chance to exploit its impact as an all-time cult favorite.
O’Brien, an out-of-work London actor at the time, wrote Rocky in 1973, when fashion photography, music and pop culture began to fuel a supremely powerful gender-identity undercurrent — and if Bowie wasn’t one of the era’s champions, who was?
Bowie, of course, died in December, so maybe that makes this musical choice a little more appropriate by default, a tribute to the fierce gender-bending that cloaked his day. Meanwhile, his unfettered essence hangs over this absolutely superior production, one of the very best in Cygnet’s 13-year history. Excess upon excess is the key here — in the superstylized performances, in the tasteless angst behind the music and dress, in the rambunctious, stomp-infused choreography and in the unadulterated fun of self-discovery.
If Rocky had never been written as a marker for the era, something would have taken its place. Let’s be really, really happy this was the show that won out.
Y’all know the story, or at least you get the idea if you’re a geek for sci-fi and B horror films of the 1940s and ’50s, from which O’Brien purloined his plot: It was a dark and stormy night, and pin-up newlyweds Janet Weiss and Brad Majors have the damnedest luck with their broken-down car. But the broken-down house up ahead isn’t just any broken-down house, any more than it’s a place for Brad and Janet to get help. It’s owned by broken-down mad scientist Frank ‘N’ Furter, who invites Brad and Janet to spend the night so he can unveil his watershed creation to them. Rocky Horror’s picture-perfect body and tan makes the Frankenstein monster look like — well — the Frankenstein monster.
[The theater]… has the foresight and good sense to push its own envelope.
Frank’s transvestism is the least of Brad and Janet’s worries as an impromptu sleepfest between the occupants (and genders) ensues. And don’t ask how, but who should then show up other than Dr. Everett Scott, the wheelchair-bound science tutor Brad and Janet were on their way to visit. The madness escalates from there, with the unlikely Frank emerging as the poor man’s hero in the end.
Yeah, the plot’s thin and stupid. And that’s the point. The stories out of O’Brien’s target film genre were pretty lame too – and it’s his fortune that the glam scions of Rocky‘s day were in a retrospective mood, seeking a movie medium whose idiocy had taken on a life of its own. Two generations of performance art would meet in an epic battle to out-camp one another, and the beauty is that neither wins nor loses. Positively brilliant face-off, all in the interest of a culture that has the foresight and good sense to push its own envelope.
As much as anybody, the tech crew deserves the same thunderous applause that Cygnet artistic director Sean Murray got for his outrageous Frank and also for helming the play (dig him in the pseudo-ballad “I Can Make You a Man”!). Andrew Hull’s shoddy, neon-laden set has everything in common with Chris Rynne’s lights; Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ hinky costumes carry the same edge as David Brannen’s choreography; and sound designer Chris Luessman fairly inhabits music director Patrick Marion’s body. Jacob Caltrider’s game-faced Brad (“Damn It, Janet”) is the ideal foil to Amy Perkins’ sticky-sweet Janet –- the audience alternately calls them “asshole” and “slut,” and who knows but that those monikers wouldn’t fit in another time and place.
Michael Cusimano’s Riff Raff is never more a major domo than in “The Time Warp,” the show’s signature dance-song parody; Jim Chovick’s narrator/criminologist is as big as the all-outdoors; and
Danny Hansen’s Valleyspeak tinges Rocky’s impossible physique in numbers like “Don’t Dream It – Be It” and “Wild and Untamed Thing.”
O’Brien picked up on the Rocky idea because he was only trying to keep busy between gigs. With his show, he joins an elite club of mega-successful doodlers who honored their unerring instincts (like Guy Laliberté, who co-founded Cirque du Soleil in his garage; Elton John, who dropped out of school to pursue a music career; and Bowie, who outgrew his reputation as a boy brawler to scale some unimaginable heights). Indeed, brilliance can come from anywhere –- and this installment is the only proof you’ll need. Posi. Tively. Out. Standing.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of March 19. Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show runs through May 1 at Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in, oddly enough, Old Town. $46-$67. cygnettheatre.com, 619-337-1525.