I would like— if I may— to take you on a strange journey. It seemed a fairly ordinary night when Bill Andrews— a Rocky Horrorveteran— sat down in a sturdy, conservative, high-backed chair to tell the story of Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, two young ordinary healthy kids from the happy, perfectly normal town of Denton, on what was supposed to be a normal night out… a night they were going to remember for a very long time. While Andrews is (as always) spot on as the musical’s narrator/criminologist, this introduction underscores everything that’s wrong with Playhouse on the Square’s incredibly fun, undeniably fab, but somewhat gutted production of Richard O’Brien’s decadent, glam-rock fairy tale. While Dr. Frank-N-Furter is obviously the star of this horror show, its story is presented as a case study: The strange tale of Brad and Janet, their harrowing journey out of innocence. It’s basically Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel, but with electric guitars, aliens, and erotic candy. And for all of the goodness that happens in this production, it really is unfortunate that, after the opening sequences, these two characters— finely acted by Jordan Nichols and Leah Beth Bolton almost fade into the background, and none of the other characters are ever allowed to really savor their moments in the spotlight. Once Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Jerre Dye— you might have heard of him) prances on stage as everybody’s favorite Transvestite, it’s hard to even see anybody else.
I haven’t loved everything Scott Ferguson has directed, and have occasionally pointed out some measure of predictability in his always solid, sometimes brilliant work. But the POTS regular and I share some overlapping aesthetic interests, and when I want something visual, that’s not too abysmal, I can usually count on Ferguson to deliver the goods. I even had an opportunity to work with him a few years back on a rustic, and completely perverse production of The Robber Bridegroom at Rhodes College, which is relevant only because he built that entire production around the idea of a quilt— ragged scraps of fabric expertly crafted into something colorful, inviting, and transformative, but ultimately very familiar. Although there is nothing rustic about this Rocky, like a quilt, the whole is greater than the sum of its weaker parts. And for all of my quibbles, it may the craziest thing Scott Ferguson (Pronounced “Frunk-un-schteen”) has ever stitched together.
There are basically two ways to stage Rocky Horror. You can either highlight the musical’s narrative threads, a weave of British pantomime by way of the Brothers Grimm, and tropes of classic Drive In cinema. Or you can say goodbye to all that and give yourself over to absolute decadence. Ferguson chooses the later, which makes his show short on dynamic tension, but big on jolts delivered directly to an audience’s pleasure centers. His vision of Rocky Horror is a pansexual psycho beach party fantasia complete with fast (but faulty) cars, zombies, and tons of choreography.
If you’ve heard that Jerre Dye’s performance as Frank-N-Furter is the greatest thing that ever happened, you’ve not heard wrong. Make no mistakes, Dye’s not an extraordinary singer, and there’s not a lot of nuance in the vocal performances. But he knows how to strut (and sell) his stuff, and if this show has any moral at all it’s “FUUUUUCK NUANCE!!!” The watch-cry here is “More excess!” and you shall have it in abundance. This Frank-N-Furter walks on stage snorting face powder (or something from a compact), and you feel the kick. You can see the mind go “PING” as Dye skips, and sniffs, and licks, and condom-snaps his way through a dense thicket of bits and gags that are devilish and delightful but make it impossible to see many actual details in the show’s original architecture.
Everybody’s favorite song will be different, I’m sure, but if Rocky Horror has a musical heart it’s “Hot Patootie” (“I Really Love That Rock-and-Roll”). With it’s 1950’s swagger, and it’s PG-rated backseat make-out lyrics, it’s the heteronormative baseline from which all else is extrapolated. On top of that the number delivers a lot of backstory about Columbia and where Rocky got his brain. It’s the dimmest spot in POTS floorshow, and treated like a throwaway until Frank breaks out his chainsaw to end it.
Columbia barely exists, Riff and Magenta (all fine) show up to do what’s expected of them and not much more. And poor Janet, almost ignored by Dye’s Frank, gets the shortest end of the stick, so to speak. Her seat-wetting song, “Touch Me (I wanna be dirty),” feels like an orphan. Compared to everything else in this show, it’s downright sanitary.
Fantastic pulp-inspired costumes by Caleb Blackwell.
Rocky Horror super nerds who’ve seen more than one local revival may recognize what appear to be a number of Easter Eggs built into Memphis’ fifth, (and POTS fourth) production of the show. The silver spaceship, the “Double Feature" flashlights, and the chainsaw splatter scene, all call to mind earlier attempts. But for all of its originality, the biggest and most obvious tribute to productions past may be Jerre Dye’s outrageous, overstuffed, down-and-dirty “big ol’ [Southern] sissy” (his words) take on the megalomaniacal scientist from Transexual Transylvania. At key moments the singing, and uninhibited choice-making powerfully echo Mark Chambers, the homegrown actor who played the role twice in the 1990’s, and whose Circuit Playhouse performance made an indelible impression on a much younger Jerre Dye. The seeming tribute is especially obvious when the music swells, Dye accesses his lower vocal registers, and belts out lyrics like a Ms. Man-Thing possessed.
To borrow an idea from Mary Shelley and a line from songwriter Stephin Merritt, I think this show needs a new heart. But, then again, who needs a heart when you’ve got such a smoking hot body? Given a chance all this sexy silliness can actually suckerpunch you with an emotional wallop you never saw coming. The wind-up starts when Eddie and Columbia are separated in “Hot Patootie.” The fist tightens when Frank discovers the line between extreme and “too extreme.” It lands as Brad and Janet struggle to find their way back home in the haunting “Superheroes.” And we’re left to contemplate time, space, and meaning in the wistful, minor key reprise of “Science Fiction Double Feature.” We don’t really get to experience any of that this time around, and in the complete absence of emotional and narrative content, even a short show can drag. And so does this, at the end, just before the spaceship launches. Emotion is a powerful and irrational master, but so is pleasure. And, based on what I eagerly viewed on stage at Playhouse on the Square last week, the audience was clearly its slave. Using almost no scenery, and some inventive projection POTS energetic, mostly able ensemble, delivers about as much fun as a person can have with their clothes on. Or half off. Or even fully off in some truly pathetic cases. You know who you are.