Anyone who’s seen the movie Fame knows that among the cognoscenti, people who have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show are called “virgins,” and that those who have become its habitués are “sluts.” But did you know that those who haven’t seen the original stage production, The Rocky Horror Show, are “masturbators”? Clearly, it was time to reduce the number of masturbators in Lafayette. So the Town Hall Theatre, ever concerned with civic duty, stepped into the breach with the most outrageous thing that’s happened on a Contra Costa stage in years, maybe ever. “When I started here,” Kevin Morales explained the night I went, “it was nothing but farces, and tickets were down.”
Morales thought one show a season should be a little riskier. Last season’s horse-frightener was Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, which includes sex talk and characters smoking dope. This season, it’s The Rocky Horror Show. And it’s a doozy, although in a time when numbingly clinical hot and cold porn flows out of the Internet tap and Girls Go Wild for ugly baseball caps, it’s sweet and clever by comparison. The dirty-mouthed Transylvanians are played by kids who weren’t even born the year I lost my cinematic cherry, the bustiers — though tight and numerous — cover everything, and there are signs all over the theater discouraging the attendance of younger patrons. Indeed, there’s something nostalgic, almost wholesome, about the production, from the fresh-faced Usherette who sings the opening song to the tenderness with which Dr. Frank N. Furter tells his visitors “Don’t dream it, be it” in the last big number.
But a gentle reminder to parents who don’t remember the exact plot because they were too plastered on whatever they’d managed to sneak into the cinema twenty years ago: This story is about ultimate pleasure as pursued by a moody transvestite from another planet and his creepy minions. In other words, it contains sex. And since oral sex is apparently no longer taboo, with Oprah in a lather about teen “rainbow parties” and adults stressing about kids getting down with going down, the transgressive sex act suggested in this show is a little different from the one suggested in the movie.
People who have only seen the movie might be surprised to learn the stage production came first. Richard O’Brien, who played the film’s sepulchral Riff-Raff, wrote the stage version (original title: They Came from Denton High) as an homage to B-movies and the ’50s. It premiered in London in June 1973, and two years later went to the big screen, where it tanked until someone got the bright idea to only show it at midnight. A cult of singing, cross-dressing, toast-tossing attendees sprang up around the film. Thirty years later, you can still do the Time Warp with Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon (try Oakland’s Parkway on Saturday nights), but why not do it with a totally live cast, in a theater that serves bloody Marys at intermission?
Morales and his cast tried to stay true to the film’s spirit, he reports in the program, but they also tried to be honest to the text, and to the constraints of live performance. It would have been nice to incorporate certain of the film’s elements — the suspenseful metronomic beat of Frank’s high-heeled pump preceding his first entrance being an obvious one — although some of the cuts made in the transition to film make sense. Rocky, for instance, actually speaks in the stage show, clunky things such as “I’m afraid of my creator and his minion,” which actor Ryan Meulpolder has a hard time selling. There’s also some truly dull exposition from the criminologist narrator in the scene where Janet and Rocky console each other. And it’s a shame we see so little of the castle — no theater could pull off that many sets.
But there are things particular to the stage show that are, yes, better. There are more dance numbers, and they’re done well, especially “Hot Patootie” and the climactic floor show. There’s a bizarre fight sequence at the finale. And while it’s weird watching the show without the ritualized audience commentary, an unexpected benefit is that you can actually make out lyrics or dialogue usually drowned out by catcalls or chants of “Castles don’t have phones, asshole!” and so on.
Sean Robert Griffin eerily channels O’Brien as Riff-Raff, but a nice, clean, sexy version. Besides Meghann May’s lilting take on “Science Fiction Double Feature,” Peter Matthew Smith does a better job of selling “Damn It, Janet” than Barry Bostwick did. Anne Letscher (Janet) looks a little like a natural version of Denise Richards, with a very large and expressive mouth; her reactions to the goings-on are hilarious and her high notes impeccable. Henry Perkins is a lithe and swoonworthy Eddie, although as Dr. Scott his accent is all over the map.
It’s hard to fill Tim Curry’s fishnets, and while Alec Warwick makes a concerted and valiant effort, his choice to play the sweet transvestite as a little less merrily bisexual and a little more disdainful of women is disappointing. This is a swoonier Frank, and not as tough, but Warwick has a great voice and presence for the role. “It’s not easy having a good time,” he laments near the end. But that shouldn’t be true for audiences ready for “erotic nightmares beyond measure” in a quiet suburb, or at least ready to shed their “masturbator” status.