The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again
A few years ago Universal Studios decided to produce live versions of iconic Broadway musicals. Many have previously found the rate of the film, but their intention was to return to the feeling of a live performance presenting the performances as they unfolded live on NBC. Such extremely successful place such as ‘The Sound of Music,' Grease’ and ‘Peter Pan’ began the trend of the stalwart musicals such as ‘The Wiz and ‘Hairspray’ following on a fairly regular schedule. Not to be outdone 20th Century Fox decided to get in on what appeared to be an increasingly popular franchise. In the executive conference room for such decisions are made this undoubtedly seemed to be a sound direction for their entertainment division. Unfortunately, a lot can go wrong with a solid idea and its execution. The first pitfall this decision met with was the selection of the musical, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.' I have never seen the actual stage play, but as a lifelong New Yorker frequently explores the streets of Greenwich Village in search of entertainment, I’ve attended my share of midnight showings of the film. The movie achieved cult status largely because of the audience participation. In most locations and informally accepted scripted responses and actions for the audience to follow just add to the feeling of community and the overwhelming enjoyment of the experience. For some reason, Fox decided to turn this into a major cable movie removing most of it from the live venue. The incredible synergy created by a live performance of Rocky Horror is something that is beyond description requiring personal experience before you can have a glimmer of understanding. There were a few movies or popular musicals where the fans have committed every single word of dialogue to memory and have a complete understanding of each stage direction. The cast of the movie is so ingrained in their roles every several nuances of their performances anticipated by the exceptionally loyal Rocky Horror fan base that any deviation, no matter how necessary a variation may be a significant portion of the audience is sure to reject them.
I usually prefer to consider a remake, reboot or reimagining on their merit trying my best to separate it from the original material. I’m a firm believer that every generation has an obligation to reinterpret the classics of your experiences and beliefs. However, there are certain examples of entertainment that were the perfect confluence of material, performers, time and place that would be an affront to that original production to attempt modifications. A while back, there were talks to redo ‘Casablanca,' casting Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck in the title roles. While it would be perfectly acceptable to rework the underlying themes of the story directly remake would be considered by many a form of sacrilege. The same applies to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was among the first films to establish the Midnight Movie phenomenon. It was the ultimate break the fourth wall serving as the epitome of the rebellious attitude of the 70s. The variation presented by 20th Century Fox may have started out with the best of intentions Roundup is a pale echo of the original.
One of the most visually significant images from the original is a pair of lips and bright shiny red lipstick singing the opening number, ‘Science-Fiction Double Feature.' The first indication that we are in for something completely different is that a young woman performs the number, Ivy (Ivy Levan) dresses as an usherette. Some hopeful feelings begin to surround the audience as it is evident that the producers have into creating a new visual experience. The song performed in front of the other that features posters of each of the movies referenced in her song. It also demands to note that this young woman does have a voice with sufficient power and range to pull off the number correctly. During the song, she does greet the theatrical audience as they come in to take their ‘seats’ passing, even more, lobby displays. For those of us, that remember the familiar feeling of a neighborhood theater such shows with the primary rate we learned about what movies were coming out making this reference a comfortable homage. After the seats the patrons, we watch as the screen displays the 20th Century Fox logo in the film begins. After an initial lightning bolt, the perspective now moves to watching the movie.
The next scene of the wedding is indicative of what may happen to remain the show, sufficiently close to the look and feel of the original consistent with its visual style. An excellent choice was made in the casting of Brad Majors (Ryan McCartan) and Janet Weiss (Victoria Justice) particularly with Ms. Justice a familiar face thanks to years of starring in a Nickelodeon musical sitcom, ‘Victorious.' As a professional singer vocal, skills exceeded that of Susan Sarandon. Occasionally throughout the show, we do return to the vantage point of being in the audience such as the expository segment with the criminologist, played by the original cast member of both plays and, Tim Curry. We reentered the film the next big musical number, ‘There's a Light (Over at the Frankenstein Place.' Diehard fans will undoubtedly reach for some newspapers, a Bic lighter and water pistol as they shout "kick it." As a longtime fan of Rocky Horror, the responses are so ingrained as to become muscle memory as I watch this alternate interpretation. The camera does back to the viewers in the faux theater to watch its audience try to simulate that portion of the audience participation.
Similar to many things that have helped define the zeitgeist of a generation Rocky Horror does represent the definition of synergy consisting of a series of exceptionally famous scenes that were in strung together forming an incredibly immersive experience. The moment that is one that is best known even, beyond the fan base, occurs as soon as the drenched couple finds shelter in a castle. The handyman, Riff Raff (Reeve Carney) joined by a maid, Magenta (Christina Milian) and resident groupie, Columbia (Annaleigh Ashford) introduced Brad and Janet to the partygoers gathered for a celebration, the Transylvanians. The famous number ‘Time Warp’ does manage to generate a suitable amount of energy among the performers. It also establishes an extended stage that encompasses the main set, theaters Auditorium, and even the criminologist’s office. The rapid cutting between locations was an apparent attempt to make up for the loss of energy provided by active participation, but the effect is only partially successful.
The all important role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, portrayed by an incredibly intense and talented actress, Laverne Cox is extraordinary. This performer happens to be a transgendered individual, but her casting based on ability, not as a stunt, was ideal. She is best known for her role in the Netflix megahit, ‘Oranges the New Black.' This show does afford her a platform to showcase her ability to only role in musical theater that requires song and dance. It’s hard for anyone to come up to the standard for this role as set by Tim Curry but Ms. Cox comes asymptotically close. She certainly has the energy and the stage presence is the talent to navigate the subtle emotional nuances required by the role. One character that is nearly impossible to recast is that of the delivery boy, Eddie, who in the film portrayed by Marvin Aday, better known by his nom de voyage of Meatloaf. There were few performers capable of navigating the tongue-twisting lyrics to this machine gun pays song. There is a story well known among fans of the film that red Meatloaf was auditioning for the show’s writer and performer, Richard O'Brien; he was told not to worry about being able to manage every single word in the song; no one has been able to do it. Meatloaf nail the audition and as anyone who has heard any of his songs knows he is the fastest and best enunciating singer since the D'Oyly company perform the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Taking over the role is Adam Lambert who had a career jumpstarted by coming in second place during the eighth season of American Idol. He had gained a reputation for reinterpreting well-established songs in a new style making him the logical choice for inclusion in this project. Finally, the role of the creature, Rocky (Staz Nair) handled in an acceptable fashion, but it must be remembered that this role was never highly conducive for dynamic performances.
It is interesting to note how the social changes that occurred from the 70s to this new millennium dilute so much of the shock value that pervaded the original. The fluid sexuality and hedonistic reveries are significantly more socially acceptable, at least in liberal environments. A man in full drag complete with excessive eye makeup and fishnet stockings singing about ‘transsexual Transylvania’ was far more shocking back in the 70s that a transgendered woman is performing the same song in much the same costume today. The biggest pitfall that this show was unable to avoid was the largest demographic with an interest to watch would be the loyal fans of the original production. That alone has set up this major cable movie for failure. Taken as individuals most of the cast are exceptional in their performances. Ms. Justice is outstanding as Janet, and Ms. Cox commands the stage every moment of her appearance.