Fox enters the world of musical adaptations with a High School Musical-inspired interpretation of the 1976 midnight movie.
Watching Fox’s adaptation of Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman’s Rocky Horror Picture Show last night was about as big a “jump to the left” as you can get. Director Kenny Ortega, known for his own cult musical Newsies and best known to millenials as the director of the High School Musical series, takes the basic tenets of the 1975 midnight classic and waters everything down to a gray soup. It’s like watching someone dance the hokey pokey who thinks they’re doing the Time Warp because they’re both dances where the actions are described. In a world where The Sound of Music, Grease Live, and Hairspray will be adapted for television, The Rocky Horror Picture: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again (get it, because it’s the same thing but not) is easily one of the worst adaptations out there.
Tim Curry and Ben Vereen
They had to find someone associated with the original to come back, if only to please “memberberry” eaters like myself. Tim Curry immortalized the role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter and his presence only reminds us of why Laverne Cox fails. Curry suffered a stroke a few years ago, and it was great seeing him shine in this. His Criminologist isn’t as active as Charles Gray was, for obvious reasons, but Curry singing the film’s final lines put a smile on my face. Ben Vereen shows why he’s still a legendary song-and-dance man as the unique choice for Dr. Scott. The other actors’ limitations required him to tone down his superlative singing, but he rocked the hell out of an Albert Einstein wig!
The Set Design
The entire affair had a budget on par with an episode of Glee – and looked like it filmed direct from McKinley High during the “Floor Show” number. Frank-N-Furter’s (Laverne Cox) laboratory definitely gave off a crypt-like look compared to the original’s cold sterility. It played tribute to the world of Frankenstein, but with a bizarre 1950s edge; Rocky’s home is a Coca Cola cooler.
With other musicals there are generally two-three songs I’ll demand perfection from. Here, the minute the first two songs ended horribly I knew the rest were in danger. Thank the gods for Adam Lambert as Eddie. “Hot Patootie” is such a fun song, whether it’s in the show or on the radio that it couldn’t fail! Lambert went full glam rock, shredding the lyrics without needing tempo or chord changes that alter the song’s drive. Once he met his inevitable demise, the show was doomed. Note to future creators: Give Adam Lambert all the roles. (P.S., I did enjoy the “Not meatloaf again” joke at the dinner table.)
Ivy Levan’s been on my radar since she performed the fantastic, should have been Oscar-winning, theme song to Spy. Her vocals conjure up emotions of Ella Fitzgerald and she sets the right, though unsustainable, tone of the show with the opening song “Science Fiction/Double Feature.” I could see her as a smokey Sally Bowles if anyone wants to adapt Cabaret….or not.
Annaleigh Ashford and Reeve Carney
I’m going back and forth on these two. As Columbia, Annaleigh Ashford doesn’t play a “groupie,” so much as imitating Kesha during the end of Jem and the Holograms. Ashford is spunky during her “Time Warp” tap dance; she has theatrical experience so her singing is good. When she confronts Frank at the end, telling her “I loved you. Do you me hear me, I love you,” it was one of the best moments of the entire two-hour affair. But I just can’t get off her Kesha meets Madonna vocal performance.
On the other hand, I had no issues about Reeve Carney’s dialogue delivery as Riff-Raff. He mimics Richard O’Brien’s vocal cadences perfectly, as well as capturing his pauses and shrieks (“THEY NEVER LIKED ME!”). My issue lay with the songs. Carney previously starred in the infamous Broadway flop Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, which makes sense as to why he wails on every line like he’s auditioning for a Poison coverband.
I was overjoyed when Laverne Cox was announced as Frank. A trans actress playing the lead in a play about trans characters, taboo sexuality and lampooning domesticity? She’s the perfect fit. Unfortunately there’s no desire to call any of that out through her performance, short of a line from Dr. Scott about “people like [her]” being dangerous. Musically, Cox doesn’t have the vocal range for the songs. She performs “Sweet Transvestite” like a bawdy burlesque and it works, but the other songs are dropped several octaves and slowed down leaving her to talk-sing. From an acting standpoint, Cox seems uncomfortable. Frank is a calculating, manipulative, vengeful character, but Cox says every line in the same disaffected theatrical way. There’s no emotion to the performance.
The line delivery
The show’s original dialogue requires actors able to “keep control.” Saying lines like they’re from a ’50s “How To” film, but never making it sound intentional. All of the actors assembled – with the exceptions above – veer towards horror movie-level performances. The worst offender is Victoria Justice as Janet. Justice sings like she’s emulating Demi Lovato, but speaks like she’s desperate to rush through the dialogue. Christina Milian as Magenta…I can’t believe I’m writing the singer of “Dip It Low” is playing Magenta…laughs, endlessly.
I complained about this a lot last night. The songs suck. All the tempos are slowed down and the octaves lowered. A stripped down version of “I’m Going Home” could have worked if Cox ramped it up more. The “Time Warp” didn’t whip me into a frenzy, but stayed at a level above comfortable. The songs just blended together, which is weird since there’s no set genre for the show as a whole.
What’s the Point?
The biggest question came from the show’s intentions. Glee performed Rocky Horror as a means of expressing people’s individuality regardless of sexuality. The show itself is about putting a dirt stain on the clean shirt of conformity. So then why does everything seem so frigid and heterosexual? The script plays up the relationship between Justice’s Janet and Staz Nair’s Rocky more than it ever did in the original. Offensively, Frank and Rocky’s wedding is removed in favor of a poor “going down” joke.
It all played as if Fox feared shocking middle America when that’s the entire point of the show! It was a completely neutered affair that will please teens who think “Well, the lyrics of Greased Lightening are cleaned up. Guess this means I can see Sweet Transvestite now.” This was High School Musical Rocky Horror, meant to play high school theater kids desperate for a show stopper, but far from pleasing to the fans of O’Brien’s irreverent rock musical.