Boston Rock Opera's Rocky Horror

From The Boston Phoenix, Cellars by Starlight: October 9, 1997
Show tunes: Boston Rock Opera’s Rocky Horror
by Brett Milano

Is it still The Rocky Horror Show without the rice, toast, and flying toilet paper? Boston Rock Opera’s production of the show is faithful to the original stage play and 1975 film in all but one respect: audience members are warned upon entrance that they won’t be allowed to throw anything at the stage. And when I saw the show on opening night, a surprisingly polite audience also kept vocal participation to a minimum. Eternal nerd Brad Majors (David Ilku) made it through the entire show without once being called an asshole. The no-neck status of the Criminologist (Pat McGrath) was never remarked upon. And Frank-n-furter, the Transylvanian transvestite (played by Ryan Landry from Space Pussy), even got to “shiver with antici. . . pation” without having a roomful of people yell “Say it!” during the pause.

In some ways Rocky Horror is a more obvious choice than anything BRO has attempted so far — it’s more fun than Jesus Christ Superstar, has more memorable tunes than the Kinks’ Preservation Act II, and is more theatrically fleshed out (so to speak) than the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Instead of building a plot from an all-music concept album, BRO had familiar characters and a complete script to work with; and it stuck largely to the look and spirit of the film. Frank-n-furter’s house is still a cross between Dracula’s castle and Man Ray. And the usual gang’s all here: Charles Atlas dreamguy Rocky (Garrett Kimball) tapdancing groupie Columbia (Holly Sugar of the Sugar Twins), proto-goth vamp Magenta (Ticia Low), Eno-esque skinhead Riff Raff (Bill Hough). Ryan Landry played Frank-n-furter much as he plays himself in Space Pussy, managing to outdo Tim Curry’s original for outright camp. Only one characterization was a major departure: instead of playing Eddie as a ’50s greaser, as Meat Loaf did in the film, T.C. Cheever turns him into . . .well, we’d hate to give it away, but think Las Vegas.

For those of us who’ve attended The Rocky Horror Picture Show a handful of times without actually sitting down and watching the thing, last week’s opening was a relatively low-key experience. Fortunately, the restraint was in the audience and not on stage. The Boston Rock Opera company (which includes more full-time actors and fewer bandmembers this time around) got right into the libertine spirit of this show, the bastard child of B-movies and ’70s glitter rock.

Still, there were a few signs of the times. Since this production is a benefit for AIDS Action, Frank-n-furter inserts a safe-sex (but still pro-sex) message after he’s had his way with Brad and Janet. He also does a lyric update during “Sweet Transvestite,” suggesting they watch “an old Keanu [instead of Steve] Reeves movie” — just the sort of subtext that Keanu has long been trying to avoid. And the sex and violence in the original were toned down a bit, with the two most visceral scenes — the murder of Eddie, and Frank-n-furter’s double seduction of Brad and Janet — both played as slapstick (the latter was the night’s funniest turn, thanks to a quick ad-libs with a fake penis that refused to stay attached). Still, you can’t desexualize Rocky Horror too much, not when the Transylvanian crew distribute condoms during the intermission (likely why Thursday’s show was picketed by the same five folks who hand out Jesus pamphlets on the Red Line).

In short, Rocky Horror isn’t much closer to being respectable now than it was in the ’70s, and that’s one reason it holds up. Another is that the songs are a lot better than you may remember: composer/lyricist Richard O’Brien (whose only post-Rocky output was the flopped sequel Shock Treatment) synthesized show tunes, bubblegum pop, art rock, and David Bowie’s early catalogue into obvious singles like the Queen-derived “Sweet Transvestite” and the big dance number “Time Warp.” The house band, led by Mick Maldonado, navigated the soundtrack with ease — no small feat, since it was originally performed by some of England’s most expensive studio pros. (Special mention goes to Chainsuck drummer Perry James for nailing the parts originally played by Procol Harum’s BJ Wilson.) By getting the music and the spirit right, the BRO crew can do the Time Warp without getting caught in a time warp.

The Rocky Horror Show will be performed tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday (October 9, 10, and 11) at 8:30 p.m. at Massachusetts College of Art’s Tower Auditorium. Tickets are $18; call 450-1347.