Perhaps we should have been more alarmed when the dearly departed Citizens of the Universe brought their production of The Rocky Horror Show to NoDa in 2015. Little baggies were passed out to the opening night crowd, filled with the ritual objects beloved by Rocky cultists everywhere: noisemakers, oversized eyeglass frames, shredded newspaper, and maybe toast.
No doubt to the dismay of the privileged few among us who had thrown rice at a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show – or repeatedly denounced its heroine, Janet, as a slut – hardly anyone in the audience knew when any of these mystic objects should be deployed or why we had them.
Fast forward to the current resurrection from Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte at The Barn at MORA. Their wonderfully crass digital playbill includes a “Guide for Virgins,” wherein we can glean that we should be calling out “Slut!” every time we hear Janet’s name and “Asshole!” every time we hear Brad’s.
In the likelihood that we haven’t scanned the proper QR code with our smartphones at the ticket booth – or haven’t properly noted the guide on page 6 of the 24-page digital playbill – we get a tutorial during the curtain speech.
As a result, the opening night audience, socially distanced on their lawn chairs, responded frequently and lustily to the cues we had been given. But nothing else from the cult’s rich and silly oral traditions was passed along: the familiar quips, taunts, wisecracks, and one-liners were never flung at the players on the outdoor stage.
Newcomers to this cultural touchstone by Richard O’Brien went home without knowing which of these men, women, and outliers in-between must be called out as the character with no neck.
A night out with The Rocky Horror Show, we must now sadly recognize, is no longer a rite of passage for our nation’s youth. Closing in on its 50th birthday, the Rocky show doesn’t shock as it once did, and the fervor of its fandom seems to have mellowed.
It’s still a damn good musical, though – and lots of fun. For Brad and Janet, their exotic night with Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter still is a wild and sexy initiation rite. Even if they’ve lost their rebellious edge, “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me,” “Hot Patootie” and “The Time Warp” emerge as freshly as ever from the rama-lama-ding-dong cradle of rock.
Actor’s Theatre has gathered a bodacious armada of voices to belt out these and 15 other songs. There is plenty of kinkiness in the costuming and everyone onstage seems to have a year’s supply of lipstick.
Back in July, when ATC made its COVID-shortened comeback, the cast of Rock of Ages could be labeled the usual suspects, bridging the company’s pre- and post-pandemic productions.
Though Katy Shepherd returns once again to the outdoors, howling and wailing like Satan’s mamma as Riff Raff, and Jamaas Britton as Rocky is another Rock of Ages holdover, it feels like new blood when we watch the current production, not to mention a couple of non-binary folks if we scrutinize our playbill bios.
Ashley West-Davis welcomes us with The Usherette’s “Science Fiction Double Feature,” the doo-wop ditty that frames the show. Since West-Davis is a resident artist at Opera Carolina, hers is certainly not a hushed ushering, and we’re further gratified when she reappears as Magenta, Riff Raff’s sister and a prime instigator of “The Time Warp.”
Our narrator, Stephen Emery, makes an equally auspicious Charlotte debut, obviously confident and experienced. And if you find your emcee a bit unexpected costume-wise, wait till you see young Noémi Rabinowitz’s sensational entrance as the leather-clad Eddie – a mere preamble to their scorching vocal on “Hot Patootie.”
Ariel Fisher and Ben McCarthy both make their ATC debuts as Janet and Brad, but their chemistry as a couple can be questioned. The naïve nymphet that Furter deflowers is readily reached by Fisher, but the chasm between McCarthy and Brad’s wide-eyed credulity is more than a decade, even with dorky eyeglass frames.
Fortunately, their betrothal is swiftly behind us, and the most risqué episodes of their respective odysseys happen when they’re apart. Fisher definitely blossoms at the start of Act 2 in “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me.”
Long active in Belmont and Gastonia, Christopher Magee leaps over Uptown Charlotte for his ATC debut as the corruptor-in-chief, Frank ‘N’ Furter. He’s not the most wicked or seductive host we’ve had in Charlotte – John W. Love, Jr., still retains those titles since 1990 – but he has all the sensuality, energy and vocal chops you could ask for, a genuine creature of the night.
Britton had an infantile virility that was spot-on for Rocky, but the minor role of Columbia gives Nick Culp more chances to shine vocally with hefty chunks of “Time Warp” and “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me.”
Hardcore Rocky Horror Show fanatics who expect Riff Raff to be a hunchback and Eddie to emerge from a Coke freezer may not warm to director Erik Wagner’s alterations, and those who insist upon throwing stuff at the stage need to wait for the farewell performance on Halloween night, when they’ll be allowed to let loose.
That’s the night you’re most likely to hear the ancient wisecracks and callbacks, find fellow audience members who know what and when to throw, and meet more than a single person who knows which character should be wearing a turtleneck.
Meanwhile, if you possess the ancient quips handed down from father to son and mother to daughter, it would be so charitable for you to show up at one of the intervening performances to share your wisdom with a new uninitiated generation. Hell, I suspect that these moldering cracks and one-liners might be news to every one of the actors onstage.
They’re young and talented, and they’re having fun.
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