By John Dwyer
“The Rocky Horror Show” has returned to Bucks County Playhouse, and we are all doing “The Time Warp” again.
I have seen many productions of this show, and it has been a longstanding Playhouse tradition. Prior to new ownership at the Playhouse in 2012, it was a much more raucous scene in the audience, almost to the point of being dangerous at times for the performers. But while though the audience has been tamed a bit for safety sake, there is nothing tame about this cast. This current group takes off with so much energy and talent, it’s enough to fuel a spaceship. And by the end of the play, there is a spaceship.
This show is all about atmospherics. It does not need to make a whole lot of sense. It revels in an “anything goes” playfulness and sexual bravado. Think of David Bowie and Mick Jagger producing an adult version of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” and this is their Halloween special.
The plot involves recently-engaged lovebirds Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, who are stranded in a car with a flat tire on a cold and rainy night near Denton, Ohio. They are able to get to a nearby castle, where they hope to find a phone to get someone out to fix their car.
Instead of finding salvation at the castle, they find the most debauched circumstances that a vampire could imagine. It is all a bit crazy, but this musical that debuted in 1973 in London, with an American premiere in Los Angeles in 1974, gives you a strange look backwards as it simultaneously looks to the future. The premier dates are important as the show is a reflection of what, at that time, was called “glam rock,” exemplified perhaps most famously by David Bowie in 1972 with his album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
The 1970s, with its platform shoes, androgynous clothing and futuristic styling had its present at Max’s Kansas City and thought its future was the Korova Milkbar from “A Clockwork Orange” and, at least in part, would be the free spirit of “Rocky Horror Show.” Every weekend, for several years at New York’s Waverly and later 8th Street Playhouse, audience members dressed up and interacted with the movie as it was being shown. This engagement became a part of the stage production when it was revived due to the movie’s huge cult success.
Bucks County Playhouse has a mashing, stellar production of “Rocky” this Halloween. It is hard to imagine a better Dr. Frank-n-Furter than Randy Harrison, who is most widely known as Justin from “Queer as Folk,” and the sweet innocence that one assumes is the character of Harrison has been subsumed by a strutting Joan Crawford man eater. It is a riveting, spot-on sexy performance that does the impossible. He makes me forget Tim Curry, who originated the role. And that is an ultimate compliment, especially since that role defined Curry for many years.
Nick Cearley and Catherine Ricafort are the personification of innocence. Cearley is a talent whose charms Playhouse-goers are accustomed to. He sings, he acts and, by god, he plays the ukulele. All these talents are brought to bear and bare during the show. He is joined by an equally-gifted actress with strong vocal ability, Ricafort, who transforms innocent Janet Weiss within 90 minutes into a hot siren of a woman. Nick Adams, like Harrison, could not be better cast or better played. The part demands a fit body, and Adams is totally buff, which along with his very fine singing, is well known and has been seen on Broadway by many of us in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “A Chorus Line,” to name just a few shows. Again, hard to imagine a better Rocky.
One of the most difficult jobs in this production was handed to Jeff Hiller, who plays three important characters in the show. He is excellent as the narrator and Dr. Scott, but Eddie needs a rougher, more surly interpretation than he could bring. His nasal, pinched-faced delivery as the narrator is hilarious. He is the “Obi Wan Kenobe” of nerds. But this is the third time I have seen the tripling of roles, and it does seem that each time Eddie is the interpretation that suffers. When done in the Broadway revival, Dick Cavett played the narrator and Lea DeLaria was Eddie and Dr. Scott — one person did not play all three. There is a case to be made that Eddie should be cast as an entirely different person. Or, at least, when casting Eddie, one needs to make sure the actor can bring it. Meat Loaf in the movie made such an impression that it launched his career, and there is an expectation that when “Hot Patootie” gets sung, it is raw rock and roll. Rawer than what gets served here. But, again, this has occurred in other years with the triple casting.
The rest of the cast is frighteningly good. Van Hughes as Riff Raff, Katie Anderson as Columbia and Olivia Griffith as Magenta slay it. William Shuler is on board. I am leaving that sentence short, as many people may recognize that name. He is the excellent music director and conductor that has been associated with many of the Bucks County Playhouse’s biggest successes (ie.g. “Company,” “The 25th Annual Spelling Bee,” “Guys and Dolls”). Nuff said.
Hunter Foster is at the helm as director again, and every year the staging, sets, and stage business are a bit different, making each year special. The ending with the red curtain was effective. The mentioning of current people and issues in the news was a great touch. When done decades ago, it was an all-white cast — this cast is racially diverse. If that was intentional back then, it was perhaps thought that sexual liberation was a big enough topic to address and get in your face about. Sexual liberation coupled with race in the ’70s may have been too controversial. I mention it now, as it goes unnoticed these days. And, I for one, am so grateful for that.
The success of this show makes one wonder if the Playhouse should take on “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” There is an obvious audience for it. Randy Harrison’s performance made me think that this would be a good vehicle for him– and either of the Nicks for that matter.
Rocky Horror Show only works if you add in the right ingredients, and this production features a very special cast. It is an insane script, but it is a roller coaster ride with a cast who makes it rock. And this “Rocky” rocks.
Tickets are available online, and performances continue through Oct. 29.