Staging The Rocky Horror Show presents an interesting challenge to any theater company.
Devoted fans have loved this cult-classic rock musical, as well as its midnight-movie version, for more than 30 years, and some of these devotees are guaranteed to show up. A director must take care to respect the fans' intimate knowledge of the show while making it fresh and inviting to newbies.
"Half of our show is in tributary reverence to the original, and half of it is a whole new vision," said Christopher Johnson, the director of a new production of The Rocky Horror Show, which opens this Friday, Jan. 15, as part of Live Theatre Workshop's late-night Etcetera series.
A musical comedy that parodies science-fiction and horror-movie clichés, The Rocky Horror Show is also an overly sexual romp, incorporating a campy, gender-bending aesthetic that has made drag-show tropes safe for so-called straight audiences.
The plot finds newly engaged couple Brad and Janet stuck with a flat tire on a rainy night. When they seek help at a nearby castle, they find a singing-and-dancing crew of pansexual alien humanoids from the planet of Transsexual, in the galaxy of Transylvania, led by the cross-dressing mad scientist Frank N. Furter. Sexual misadventures and rollicking musical numbers ensue, framed by a twisted B-movie-style plot.
The Rocky Horror Show—with book, music and lyrics by Richard O'Brien—originally played in London for a few weeks during the summer of 1973. It was moved to incrementally larger theaters and ran until 1980 with various casts. Numerous other productions, including touring versions, followed.
A 1975 film adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was inevitable, and it inspired a new cult phenomenon: midnight screenings at which the audience was actively involved, shouting out responses to the action onscreen. Often, such as at the regular screenings at the Loft Cinema, a "shadow cast" of audience members perform the show in front of the screen.
"When I first went to see the movie at the Loft, I was amazed. The audience had straight guys running around in their underwear, and grandmothers were there, too. Everybody loves Rocky," Johnson said.
Johnson said he also hopes to honor Rocky Horror's tradition of audience participation. "In my opinion, the audience is the last character in the show, so I found a girl who knows all the callbacks that the audience yells at the screen. I've brought her in, and during rehearsals, she yells those things at the cast."
That cast, a total of 15 performers, is the largest yet for a Live Theatre Workshop production, added Johnson, who originally was set to play Frank N. Furter, but now has a smaller role. "I'm playing the narrator. It's fun, because I just get to sit there and comment on what's going on."
Jody Mullen, who has only seen the movie version once, is playing Frank. "He has this voice where, in auditions, I was just in awe," Johnson said.
Brad and Janet, by the way, are played by real-life married couple Richard and Amanda Gremel. Frank's assistant, Riff Raff, is played by Danielle Dryer, who appeared a year ago with Johnson in LTW's Etcetera production of another transgender rock musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Written by John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig marked a turning point for Etcetera and Johnson, who has served as its artistic director for about three years. "That show was so hard, and we were working on it for years, but it was an amazing experience."
By the time Hedwig's closing night rolled around, the company already had decided to do Rocky as its next musical. The Hedwig cast even performed "Sweet Transvestite" from Rocky as an encore that night.
Now, in addition to six or seven other late-night plays a year, Etcetera will produce a musical every January. Already in the planning stages for 2011 is an original show, tentatively titled Steampunk Alice, a Gothic rock-opera reimagining of Alice in Wonderland.
One of the goals of the 7-year-old Etcetera series has been to bring younger patrons to Live Theatre Workshop, and Johnson is happy to have accomplished that. Audiences often are well-populated with older teenagers and 20-somethings now—but older theatergoers have been coming for the edgier fare, as well.
"One of the complaints from some of them about Etcetera has been that it's so late," he said. So for The Rocky Horror Show, the company has added an 8 p.m. show on Sunday nights.