Dallas — If you know nothing about The Rocky Horror Show, there’s not much this review can do to prepare you for the gleeful subversion immersion that is director Joel Ferrell’s masterful staging of the comic, iconic sci-fi glam rock show at Dallas Theater Center. If, on the other hand, you are an aficionado, there’s not much more this review can do than to remind you about props, which are available for sale in the lobby (you cannot bring your own).
Bridging the gap between these two disparate groups—the devoted (easily identified by their extravagant attire) and those who’ve never seen the show (called “virgins” by the aforementioned fans)—is job one when you bring a midnight movie phenomenon to a mainstream regional theater. Director Ferrell’s secret weapon is designer Bob Lavallee’s be-screened sci-fi set.
Richard O’Brien and Richard Hartley created the campy musical The Rocky Horror Show about a “sweet transvestite” that turned into a campy movie called The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which then developed a cult following with ritual attendance that included audience participation. Musical mad-scientist Ferrell makes facile use of Lavallee’s laboratory set, especially the screens by way of a hand-held camera on stage, blending the genders and genres of theater and movie for boisterous fan and timid virgin, alike. By the end of Act I, it’s a pretty smooth blend. Homogeneous, even.
The framing device provided by Julie Johnson as an Usherette who sings of her longing for the escape that movies provide is the first layer to be peeled away as we descend into this B-movie bacchanal. The second happens as Brad (a hilariously uptight Alex Organ) and Janet (the operatic voiced Morgan Mabry Mason), the ubiquitous straight-laced young couple, seek refuge in a scary castle after their car has a flat tire on a dark and stormy night. After they lose their wet clothes the layers really start flying off.
Master of the castle and the corset (courtesy of costume designer Wade Laboissonniere), Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Dan Domenech), is in the middle of creating muscle man Rocky (Justin Labosco) when he becomes distracted by the nubile newcomers and makes it his mission to broaden their sexual experiences. His Pyrrhic victory succeeds in opening the eyes Brad and Janet (as well as legions of marginalized moviegoers) to alternatives of which they’d hardly dreamed.
At its heart, this is a rock concert and accordingly, at the center of the set in a recessed circle is some of the Austin band Foe Destroyer. The rest wander, aided by wireless instruments. Over the center circle is a platform accessed by twin spiral staircases. All of which can spin unexpectedly. Opposite is an even more exciting staircase leading to between the all important movie screens. The set and staging are immersive but the truly head twisting aspect is the handheld camera.
It’s not surprising how easily we accept the camera onstage considering our cellphone society. We are very adept at locating the point from which the camera is casting the images on the screen. What’s amazing is that in a thrust arrangement, Ferrell somehow enables the camera to get its shot while also moving the actors into meaningful stage pictures. Oh, as well as doing the choreography he created.
There are some reassuring touchstones amongst all this commotion: Chamblee Ferguson’s bankable comic timing as the faithful assistant, Riff Raff; Liz Mikel’s powerful voice as Eddie (and hilarious scooter-driving Dr. Scott); and a calming yet comic narrator played by J. Brent Alford, who gets the biggest laughs of the evening. But, in true sci-fi tradition, resistance is futile. By the end, everyone is doing “The Time Warp.”
Essential to making it safe for the hesitant is Dan Domenech’s bad-assed ambassador to being bad, Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Despite the fear in the eyes of his drag queen devotee, Columbia (Walter Lee), and the cocaine-snorting and chainsaw-wielding, this towering transvestite comes off as loveable. The secret is in his squealing growl and platform heels prowl. Put them together and he’s more kitten purr and prance than dangerous dominatrix. When he does have to discipline the guitarist for playing someone else’s tune, it’s done with playful panache. The whole characterization is a shrewd calculation that pays off when he’s called home. We feel for this homicidal maniac.
With any production like this kinks are to be expected. The audience participation of the shadow casts hits and misses. The voices of the singers get lost in the roar of the live band. The glow sticks in the prop bags are really small, but you can make it work.
Note: Audience memembers are not allowed to bring their own props, but prop bags are available for $10 in the lobby.