Don’t Dream It, See It

Ken AshfordPopular Culture5 Comments

140_logoplainI generally don’t write about local events, but my weblog stat counter thingee informs me that I am averaging a couple hundred hits a day now, and many of you are from the Triad region.   So to anyone within driving distance of Winston-Salem, have I got a show for you to see.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the cult film "The Rocky Horror Picture Show".  Yup, thirty years.  Feel old?   I do (and not just because my birthday is Tuesday).   Yes, I was one of those people who went to the occasional midnight showings of "Rocky Horror" in Boston or New York in the 1980s.  (The film, in fact, practically invented the concept of the midnight showing, not to mention "goth" fashion).  Usually my Rocky Horror movie-going was a spontaneous outting with theater friends — something to do post-rehearsal and under the influence of less-than-legal mind-altering substances.

Thumb_rockyhorrorlipsSo I was extremely pleased and a little nostalgic when my theater group announced that it was mounting a production of "The Rocky Horror Show" (the stage musical on which the movie is based).  I opted not to audition — I was musical-ed out at the time (and singing/dancing isn’t my strongest suit) — and I almost instantly had regrets for that decision.

The saving grace was that I actually got to see the production Saturday night at a one-time-only midnight performance.  And seeing a stage version of "Rocky Horror" is pretty damn close to being a part of the production, what with the audience participation and all.  And man, was it fun!  Even without less-than-legal mind-altering substances.

I’m not going to pretend to write an objective review, because many in the cast and crew are friends, which makes me biased.  But I want whoever is reading this to see the production, so permit me to whet your appetite.

First of all, local theater-lovers will be pleased to know that this production of "Rocky Horror" is a true Jamie Lawson ExperienceTM.  It’s not just the tried-and-true conventions like the wall-to-wall choreography (with the Jamie-esque moves), or the confetti bomb shooting off at the climax of the show (Hel-lo?  Paging Dr. Freud!).  It’s that when it comes to camp and off-the-beaten-path shows like "Rocky Horror", Jamie clearly recognizes that "subtle" equals "death".  He’s one of the few local community theater directors around here with the, um, balls to, um, mount a show like "Rocky Horror".  But more importantly, he’s probably the only one in these parts who can do it right.  He’s not afraid to push his actors and the envelope here.  And it pays off.

The central "normal" characters — Brad and Janet — are played by David Joy and Heather Hamby.  David Joy brings a lot of skittishness to the role, and his voice excels in "Once In A While" — one of the songs from the stage version which didn’t make it to the screen.

Heather Hamby.  Yes, it would be easy to go on and on about Heather’s beauty queenity, killer bod, and legs that go aaaall the way to the ground.  But that alone is not what impresses.  Quick!  Think of a famous comic actress.  Chances are pretty good that you are thinking of someone not known for their looks (Imogene Coca, Lucille Ball, Whoopi Goldberg, etc.).  Heather defies stereotype — she’s a looker who has wonderful comic sensibilities and a strong voice.  Think Carol Burnett in the body of Gwyneth Paltrow.  Like Joy (and unlike Susan Sarandon), Heather brings bawdy humor to the otherwise placid virginal role.  Because I know her too well, I couldn’t bring myself to call her a "slut" from the audience.  But "wow" came from my lips a few times.

Gray Smith had the most difficult job of all:  Frank-N-Furter is such a well-known movie icon.  But Gray not only captured the (trans)sexuality of Tim Curry’s performance, he reminded me of something: Tim Curry can’t sing.  Whereas Gray, you know, can.  And that made his performance far more engaging.  For example, the song "I’m Coming Home" is a low-point in the film; for me, the song was always my cue to put my squirt gun into my knapsack and start thinking about the best place to catch a cab back to Brooklyn.  Gray, on the other hand, turns it into a moving torch song and makes it one of the production’s high points.  It was the only time when I wanted the audience to shut up, so we could take it all in.  And he was so good, most of them did.

The problem with the "supporting" roles in the production was that they were merely supporting roles.  I make no secret of my penchant for Emily Mark ("Magenta") as a person, which blossoms into an embarrassing mix of fawning puppy love and full-blown idolatry whenever I see her on stage.  She could do an ill-conceived one-woman show — say, "Emily Mark Sings The Greatest Hits Of The Starland Vocal Band" — and I’d buy front row seats, the poster, the CD, and the T-shirt.  And I’d probably kidnap her for a "private performance".  Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit and getting creepy-in-a-John-Hinckley-kind-of-way.  But I do that to make a point — i.e., Emily’s consistently that good.  And there’s nothing sexier than talent.  I’m just saying . . .

So, as far as this guy is concerned, Rocky Horror author Richard O’Brien didn’t write a big enough role for Emily.   Emily would probably agree.

Of course, the same could be said for the other "supporting" roles — D.A. Oldis’s "Riff-Raff" (speaking of "creepy"), Jim McKeny’s "Narrator" (absolutely hysterical), Jeff Maggs’s "Rocky" (buff in more ways than one), and Zack Brown’s dual role as "Eddie" and "Dr. Scott" (versatile lad, he).  All of them were so good, that you wanted to see more of what they could do.  Cheri Van Loon as "Columbia" made me long for the day when we can finally work together onstage in a show — she totally cracks me up. 

As a guy who usually ends up in the ensemble of musicals (and rightfully so, I might add), I have nothing but respect for the hoofers who back up the main characters.  This ensemble did exceedingly well as the glue that holds the show together.  The men/women/whatever in the ensemble did a great job exuding the raw sexuality necessary to keep the show edgy, making you constantly feel that at any moment, they were going to leap from the stage and start fellating the audience.  You don’t see that very often in musical theater, especially in Winston-Salem.  Their leery looks made me wonder if perhaps they weren’t getting enough sex, or — even worse — if I wasn’t.

Kudos also to Jeffrey Driver and whoever else had a hand in the production values of the show.  The static set alone was worth the price of admission.  But when you add in the use of film clips, hydraulic lifts, threadbare costumes, and special effects, you really appreciate watching a show where the artistry exists behind the stage as well as on it.

I was fortunate to see "The Rocky Horror Show" with a packed audience, many of whom were clearly Rocky aficionados.  The Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance production is strong enough to stand on its own, but the full flavor of the Rocky Horror experience comes with a Rocky-savvy audience.  Although it may be more difficult for the talent on stage, I sincerely hope that this cast gets boisterous audiences for the rest of their run.  So if you are a Frankie fan (or were, in your younger days), take in this show.  Audience participation kits are sold.  You should also know that the stage show’s dialogue is different from the film’s, so some of the audience ad-libs don’t work.  Don’t let that deter you, however, because the similarities far outweigh the differences.

And if you are a Rocky Horror virgin, check it out and see what the fuss is about.  Seriously, you only live once.

The Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance production of "The Rocky Horror Show" plays September 29, 30, and October 1 at 8:00 PM, and October 2 at 2:00 PM.  Tickets can be reserved by calling the WTSA box office at 336-768-5655.  All performances are in the Dunn Auditorium at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. Tickets are $16, $14 for seniors and students.  Read more about this production here.

And for those of you reading this who are not in the Triad area, let me make a plea.  Much of everybody’s daily discourse centers on how we each make our living.  We sometimes forget what we are living for, and that’s where the arts come in.  And sex.  So please support your local community theater and other arts organization, wherever you are.  And have sex.