Over the past seven years, Actor's Theatre has had resounding success with such anti-musicals as Bat Boy, The Great American Trailer Park Musical and Evil Dead. But none of these is really a great musical: Whether you've seen these shows on East Stonewall Street or not, it's doubtful that you remember a single song from any of the three. No, these are quintessentially comedies aimed at various targets for mockery, with music as part of the weaponry. You can say that The Rocky Horror Show, currently in its first go-round at Actor's Theatre, slightly transcends its satirical predecessors, since it comes armed with a double dose of Richard O'Brien's "Time Warp," a tune you might actually remember three days after your drive home.
But director Chip Decker blunders terribly in casting this show as if it were a great musical, not a zany comedy. With Meghan Whitney and Calvin Grant, hot on the heels of their triumphs in Rent, as Janet and her seducer Frank 'N' Furter; and with Jonathan Elliott Coarsey, after his stunning debut as the American champion in Chess, as the alien lackey Riff Raff; we have the best-sung renditions of "Over at the Frankenstein Place" and "Sweet Transvestite" ever heard live on a Charlotte stage. But overall, this new Rocky lacks the rollicking comical thrust of previous productions at the extinct Central Avenue Playhouse in 2003 and its ancient 1990 forefather at Duke Energy.
Where are the over-the-top antics of Alyson Lowe, Ryan Stamey, and Jon Parker Douglas when we so desperately need them? And why oh why couldn't John W. Love III, the definitive Furter (no doubt oozing lascivious corruption as I write), put on his lipstick and tell everybody involved how this is all done? Snap snap!
While the sleepy-eyed approach worked well enough for Whitney as the druggie Mimi in Rent, when you go blonde, you need to open those lashes super-wide, ridiculously amp up the energy, and radically dumb down. A similar epidemic of realism has infected all the frontliners in the cast, compounding the sacrilege of last Thursday's totally inert and passive audience. Where were the taunts that I've always heard hurled at the Narrator when Kevin Campbell declaimed from his pretentious perch? How are novices to the Rocky cult to learn the ritual mockeries and abuse?
Fortunately, all is not lost, and newcomers to the Rocky rites will especially find much to enjoy — since they won't have any concept of what they're missing. Stamey is on hand if not onstage, leading a rocking band that includes blue-chippers Jeremy DeCarlos on guitar and Gina Stewart on bass, and Jamey Varnadore's sensational set of costumes adds a considerable measure of voltage and comedy to the underpowered, under-crazed (and hazily miked) performances. For instance, Mason Reich's local debut as Janet's boyfriend Brad is no more dorky than Whitney is ditzy, but in those dumb khakis and Clark Kent glasses, we get the idea. And when we arrive at the Transylvanian castle, there's a glorious outbreak of transvestite, Goth, and dominatrix couture.
Frank 'N' Furter's entrance is astonishing — and the same can be said for his masterwork, Rocky, a mass of muscle named Marvin King — for what Decker does best here is spectacle. Here, he's aided magnificently by choreographer Tod A. Kubo, whose work on [title of show] earlier this summer gave no hint of the lusty bounty of R-rated movements and gyrations he could provide for our X-rated imaginations. A quartet of dancing Transylvanians — Alex Aguilar, Michelle Presley Harkness, Devin Nystrom, and Rachel Tate — add a special gusto to the diablerie, and two screens flanking the stage flash scenes of Janet's joyous deflowering.