I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey. It seemed a fairly ordinary night when Bill Andrews — a Rocky Horror veteran — 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) prances on stage as everybody's favorite transvestite, it's hard to even see anybody else.
There are basically two ways to stage Rocky Horror. You can either highlight the musical's narrative threads, a weave of British pantomime, the Brothers Grimm, and classic drive-in cinema. Or you can say goodbye to all that and give yourself over to absolute decadence. Director Scott 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, tons of choreography, and some inventive video projection.
If you've heard that Dye's performance as Frank-N-Furter is the greatest thing that ever happened, you've not heard wrong. Dye can work those heels and sell what he's got. If Rocky Horror has a musical heart it's "Hot Patootie" ("I Really Love That Rock-and-Roll"). With its 1950s swagger and its PG-rated backseat make-out lyrics, it's the heteronormative baseline from which all else is extrapolated. It's also the dimmest spot in Playhouse's floorshow, treated like a throwaway until Frank breaks out his chainsaw to end it.
To borrow an idea from Mary Shelley and a line from songwriter Stephin Merritt, I think this show needs a new heart. Given a chance, all this sexy silliness can suckerpunch you with an emotional wallop. It starts when Eddie and Columbia are separated in "Hot Patootie." Things heat up when Frank discovers the line between extreme and "too extreme," and sings "I'm Going Home." It all comes together as Brad and Janet struggle to find their way back home in the haunting "Superheroes." And the audience is 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, but does it matter? Emotion is a powerful and irrational master, but so is pleasure. And, based on what I eagerly viewed on stage at Playhouse, the audience was clearly its slave. Using almost no scenery, Playhouse's 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.