The Rocky Horror Show is a cult classic, made popular by the iconic film version. Richard O’Brien’s clever, campy ode to 50s B-movies with a 70s glam-rock filter is as whimsical as musical theatre can get. It is also an unabashed celebration of sexual expression. Hart House Theatre presents an energetic and delightfully garish production.
The self-consciously silly story opens on the square, small-town Brad proposing to his prim-and-proper girlfriend Janet. After their car breaks down, they take refuge in an isolated castle where they meet their flamboyant transvestite host, Frank ‘N’ Furter, and his rag-tag, oversexed and outrageous groupies. Our timid, virginal couple are just in time for the unveiling of Frank’s latest creation—a perfectly toned, endearingly child-like muscle-man named Rocky.
Sexy hijinks ensue.
All of the elements of this staging are dazzling. Brandon Kleiman set is an eye-popping, glittery spectacle of sharp-edged, metallic abstraction. Kathleen Black’s costumes are a vibrant and fanciful collection of retro-futuristic ensembles. Stephan Dickson’s choreography is flashy and elegant. All of it looks dreamy and colourful under André du Toit’s expressive lighting.
And I wanted to like it all more than I did.
Director Jennifer Walls, her cast and the production team have chosen to radically depart from the aesthetic and iconography of the film. It’s a bold creative choice. Walls’ staging is dynamic and expressive, but it’s unmoored from any sort of narrative function. The set is great to look at, but I never felt like I was in a gothic castle. Brad and Janet seem timid and shy enough during their dialogue scenes, but are then too quick and confident in the dance numbers because the choreography requires them to be. It’s all wild and fun, of course, and feels like a very exciting concert, but the characters and their environments are not well defined. Why isn’t Rocky blond? Even if he’s not caucasian (he certainly doesn’t have to be), he does have to be blond because the text tells us he’s blond! “I’ve been making a man with blond hair and a tan.” Even if it’s a bad dye job or a goofy wig, his hair has to be blond.
There were two performers who, for me, most consistently cut through the spectacle with sharp, compelling personalities: Heidi Michelle Thomas with her drunkenly sour Narrator and Chiano Panth with his adorably wide-eyed and playful Rocky. Everyone around them sing and dance their hearts out, but it’s hard to know exactly who they are as characters.
Frank ‘N’ Furter is particularly tricky. The spectre of Tim Curry can loom distractingly over the role and it’s common for actors to—if not overtly mimic him—at least pay homage. Chris Tsujiuchi provides a refreshingly unique portrayal. Having a larger Asian man inhabit the brazenly seductive Transylvanian-Transexual alien feels vital and necessary; it strengthens the body-positivity at the heart of the story and challenges the notion that lean and white is the only viable standard of beauty. Tsujiuchi is certainly not trying to remind us of Curry, but I’m not quite sure who his Frank actually is beyond the playful sass.
My brain eventually abandoned the attempt to place the show’s antics in a grounded reality, allowing the spectacle to pull me in for the second act. And just in time because the floor show and finale have always been my favourite part of Rocky Horror. The joyful, orgiastic excess of Don’t Dream it-Be It and the persuasive melancholy of I’m Going Home give me the feels, every time.
As much as I love Rocky Horror, I’m conflicted about the experience of it as a phenomenon. I can appreciate the occasional, funny shout-back, but the long-standing tradition of audience participation and the disruptive shenanigans of enthusiastically vocal patrons has never appealed to me.