Kultur: Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Melissa Farmer and Michael Tuck (as Magenta and Riff-Raff) star in Quad C Theatre’s ‘Rocky Horror (Puppet) Show.’
Charles Atlas-Approved

A new take on a cult classic, Quad C’s Rocky Horror (Puppet) Show summons Leo G. Carroll, Dana Andrews, and ... The Muppets?

When it comes to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Kultur is somewhat of an authority. I grew up a couple of hours from Ohio, where Richard O’Brien’s campy musical film of cross-dressing, pan-sexuality, and rock ’n’ roll takes place, and my next-door neighbor was Hollywood special-effects wizard Tom Savini. I figure that in light of my uncannily Horror-ible upbringing, the fact that I’ve seen the movie 374 times is a mere sidelight.

Since falling in love with the 1975 sci-fi parody as a kid back in the 1980s, I’ve seen about a dozen versions, including the Broadway revival a few years ago. In all of my viewings, I still haven’t seen an RHPS iteration that eclipses the original. Not that I ever expect to. As Dr. Frank-N-Furter, “sweet transvestite” Tim Curry — dressed in black corset, thigh-high fishnets, and stilettos — gives undoubtedly the greatest comedic performance of all time. Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Meatloaf, Charles Gray, and some of the other leads also do excellent work. I just don’t think the film would be nearly as funny without Curry’s amazingly over-the-top yet subtle portrayal of the fey, homicidal mad scientist at the story’s sarcastic heart.

Even though there won’t be a better RHPS, there will always be enjoyable runner-ups. My two favorites are the Broadway production and a stage piece I saw back in the ‘90s in which both the good doctor and his half-nekkid Frankenstein-ish creation, Rocky, were played by hot chicks. (No, “Rockette” wasn’t topless. Instead of gold lamé trunks, she wore a gold lamé bikini. “Frank-N-Furt-Her”’s costume hadn’t changed a thread.)

To my short list of second-bests I can now add Quad C Theatre’s Rocky Horror (Puppet) Show. Except for the puppets onstage and in the balcony, the production was faithful to the source material: Two clean-cut young adults, Brad and Janet, get sucked into a so-bad-it’s-good nightmare starring Frank, the dream date he built from scratch (Rocky), and a few assistants and revelers. Into the mix swirl fantastic glam-rock numbers, sly references to drug usage, and a latent nostalgia for the ‘50s — its sci-fi flicks, clothing, and clearly defined moral boundaries. A narrator provides updates and insights from offstage.

Quad C strove to capture the spirit of the RHPS “experience.” Back in the day, dozens of art houses regularly screened the movie at midnight and encouraged patrons to dress as their favorite characters and sing along. Over the years, entire lines of dialogue had somehow been developed for viewers to perform along with the proceedings onscreen. As a viewer, you learned your lines by attending as many screenings as possible. As with a lot of cool underground stuff, the RHPS experience was eventually co-opted by The Man — now all the talking-back in theaters is done for viewers by strategically placed understudies. The Puppet show was no different.

Since there’s no way to improve upon O’Brien’s tale of clashing cultures as a vehicle for spiritual and sexual awakening, most RHPSs can be measured by two criteria: 1.) the quality of singing and, to a lesser extent, acting, and 2.) how well producers contemporize O’Brien’s timeless story. Seems that intolerance is still as big a problem today as it was 30 years ago. (Go figure.)

The singing in the Puppet show was, for the most part, good and, in a couple of instances, exceptional. As Frank’s henchman Riff-Raff (played originally by O’Brien), Michael Tuck managed to belt his lines with great nuance and without ever once upstaging anyone, which is admirable and sort of unexpected in an era of spotlight hogs. Even when singing lead in the showstopping “Time Warp,” Tuck spread the spotlight generously around.

Another stand-out was Dr. Everett Scott, Brad and Janet’s former high school science teacher. Though as dumpy-looking as the original’s Jonathan Adams, he was totally hip. At one point during “Eddie’s Teddy,” he even busted out a little melisma; you know, that “whoah-HA-ho-ew-WHOAH-hoho-owww” vocal tic that’s so overused by Beyoncé, Jessica Simpson, and other contemporary R&B singers. Coming from an older, pasty, slightly chubby, balding dude in a wheelchair, the effect was friggin hilarious.

As Janet, Kim Whalen had an expressive, gorgeous voice but tended to overpower some of the tunes, attracting attention to herself rather than to Janet’s feelings and the trajectory of the music. Whalen made up for her untamed enthusiasm by enunciating perfectly and being hot while scantily dressed. (Think attractiveness ain’t a “talent”? Have you seen a single Hollywood movie over the past five or six years?! Being hot is tantamount to having trained for a decade at the Royal Shakespeare Company.)

Josh Dennis, as Brad, sang expertly (not too loud, not too soft), but you could sometimes almost see him scanning his brain for the right phrasing or gesture. His vacillating probably cost him a few laughs.

Magenta and Columbia were steady and true but largely forgettable, and William K. Lanier in the role of Frank was noteworthy only for his swimmer’s build. His acting and singing had a certain “naïve charm” — to quote one of Frank’s most famous lines — “but no muscle.”

From two big screens on both sides of the proscenium, a George W. Bush impersonator served as the narrator. His redneck accent came on a little strong at times, but J-M Spect’s timing was crisp. He also interacted with the crowd and with the two extremely voluble hecklers in the wings, recreations of Statler and Waldorf, the grumpy old puppet-men from The Muppet Show. After what seemed like the 900th time they shouted “asshole” after Brad’s name was mentioned, Dubya finally acknowledged how awfully the weak joke was aging.

I wanted to applaud. Not only were Statler and Waldorf et al. distracting, they didn’t say anything remotely humorous. For as much as I credit co-directors Brad Baker and Dane Hoffman with courageously putting an out-of-left-field spin on a cult classic, I wish they had toned down the back-talk a bunch.

In addition to the puppets in the balcony, several life-sized marionettes wiggled around onstage, and smaller, skinnier puppets of pop-cult icons — from Jesus and Hitler to Batman and Bart Simpson — wiggled around in the balcony. Of all the creatures, the most cleverly designed was Rocky, a 10-foot-tall, golden-hued, blocky monstrosity. Several stagehands worked each of his limbs — two legs, two arms, and a torso — and they worked in concert gracefully. Dancing, walking, singing, whatever — they pulled it off. Kudos to choreographer Rusty Tennant and puppet designer James M. Ortiz.

Congrats also to Mark Mullino, who provided the musical direction. As a good stage band should, his outfit rocked hard but never superseded the action.

Contact Kultur at kultur@fwweekly.com.

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