subscribe: Posts | Comments

New Phoenix production adds to ‘Rocky Horror’ brand and mystique


On stage through the end of October at New Phoenix Theatre is Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show. Whether you’re a Rocky Horror virgin or a veteran who’s seen the movie 40 or more times, the New Phoenix version is just the type of escapism that the doctor (as in Dr. Scott) ordered for an October night out.

It’s critical to point out from the outset that this is a live stage show. Yes, the Alliance for the Arts and Center for Performing Arts Bonita are screening the movie, but there’s just something special about screaming barbs, insults and epithets at a group of live actors rather than a picture displayed on a television or movie screen. The experience is more personal, intimate and immediate. And while the actors in this show resist the temptation to break theater’s sacrosanct fourth wall, that’s not the case with the show’s melodious deep-throated narrator, Brian Linthicum. He doesn’t just field the slings and arrows of outrageous vitriol with unshakeable humor, he encourages, nay applauds, it with a sardonic grin and conspiratorial nod.

Whether the movie or stage play, audience participation is what transforms Rocky Horror from a ho-hum passive endeavor into a full-on participatory happening. And to foster that result, New Phoenix includes with the price of every ticket swag bags that contain everything one needs to play along … including a set of instructions for first-timers. The instructions are hardly needed. There’ll be enough audience members in front, behind and on either side of you to make sure you know which prop to use, and when, from start to finish.

Saying that Rocky Horror is a campy cult classic is tantamount to endeavoring to explain the process of breathing. Duh. But it may help to know that superficially the show is operates to parody B horror movies – complete with an unsuspecting naïve young couple, a creepy old gothic mansion and a host of maniacal otherworldly denizens that include Frank N Furter, his sidekick Riff Raff, an assortment of creatures of the night and, of course, a bevy of phantoms.

The plot begins with two young college graduates by the name of Brad and Janet who decide to visit their old professor on a dark and rainy night. Predictably, they get a flat on the drive out and are ushered by invisible phantoms to a cold and foreboding mansion on the hill to use the phone. However, they are quickly commandeered by the charismatic Dr. Frank N Furter for a night of musical entertainment and debauchery, making for an experience they’ll never forget.

New Phoenix Director Brenda Kensler is in her element when it comes to musicals. There’s the ever-present danger of rendering a show that’s been produced and screened as much as this one in a trite, stale manner. No worries here. Kensler’s staging and direction infuse the entire show and particularly the song-and-dance numbers with a fresh, Billie Eilish “Tough Guy” vibe that resonates across the generational divide.

Of course, that’s also a tribute to the band and entire ensemble cast. A Rocky Horror devotee since age 7, usherette and phantom Eren Sisk (who belts out both the opening and closing “Science Fiction Double Feature” number) describes Rocky Horror as her “dream show.” The rest of the cast clearly feels as Sisk does. They’re unabashedly delighted to be performing in the live version of Rocky Horror, and their all-in, energetic performances combine individually and in the aggregate to ensnare and infect the audience.

While each performance is commendable and noteworthy, a few warrant a special shout-out.

Joey Bostic is sensational in the role of Frank N Furter. He portrays the character as an intolerant, mercurial narcissist ready, willing and eager to employ intimidation, leather whip and gas-powered chainsaw against anyone who dares to take the spotlight away from him. Bostic captures Frank’s menacing, Dionysian demeanor perfectly, breathing life into the competing interpretations about whether Richard O’Brien conceived of Frank N Furter as a criticism of the God of Deuteronomy – who smites those who refuse to obey him – or more as a condemnation of Ziggy Stardust (a rock and roll god sent from another planet (or at least David Bowie) to bring us music from the stars).

Shelley Sanders plays Columbia, a groupie who’s loved both Frank and one of his minions, Eddie. She’s also the one who sees Frank for what he is, and she delivers the musical’s most penetrating, heartfelt and longest monologue. Columbia experiences the widest range of emotions over the course of the storyline, and Sanders meets and exceeds the demands made upon her by the role. A triple threat with shows like Cabaret and Sordid Lives under her belt, she’s not just a terrific actor – she sings like a dream and commands the stage during the dance sequences. She’s one of those movers you just can’t take your eyes from whenever she’s on stage.

Of course, Brad and Janet serve as both catalysts and foils for all of the action in Rocky Horror, and Cameron Rogers and Gabrielle Lansden couldn’t be more perfect in these roles. It’s an added advantage that both have strong, resonant voices that send cascades of notes flowing into and caressing the audience. But comedy requires special talent, and Rogers and Lansden are at their absolute best during the opening scene of Act Two when they are blown away (sorry for such a shameless pun) to find themselves in bed with Frank rather than each other. (You really have to see the scene to appreciate it.)

Sam Bostic and Nikki Hagel excel as Riff Raff and Magenta; Trace Meier is superb as wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott; and it would be difficult to think of a better narrator than Brian Linthicum. But it’s patently unfair to leave anyone out. The entire ensemble functions as a cohesive, well-0iled transducer. They’re a joy to watch.

Kudos also go out to Musical Directors Lee Blackston (bass guitar) and Andrea Rocella (keyboard), as well as Bill Frank, and Douglas Jefferson on percussion. (And it should be noted that Nikki Hagel plays saxophone in the guise of Magenta on a couple of numbers.) As Blackston and Rocella demonstrated in Lab Theater’s recent production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, they have a real feel not only for 50s-era pop rock (as in Eddie’s song, “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul”) but for the glam rock genre that Rocky Horror allegorically skewers.

So, look, whether you dress as your favorite character or come as you are – whether you’re a virgin or an inveterate veteran – you’ll quickly (re)discover why Rocky Horror lives on and on and on. There’s no denying that some may be put off by the innuendo, sexual content and costumes, but it’s all in good fun. Compliments to New Phoenix Theatre and Brenda Kensler for contributing to the Rocky Horror brand and mystique.

The saga continues live and in person through October 31.

October 10, 2019.



Comments are closed.