If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Producer-director Christine Lightcap has been running The Rocky Horror Show since she had braces on her teeth and cruised to the theater on her roller skates. She knows what she’s doing: It’s organized mayhem, with no second-guessing allowed. If a certain performer is no longer available, well, Lightcap can find another, someone with, ahem, a more capacious bust line. And audiences keep flocking in, with white-faced fright makeup, carrying rice, playing cards, toast and toilet paper (Scott’s brand preferred). They keep getting younger, too. Lightcap had put Rocky Horror on the boards the first time before a third of the current screaming horde was born.
The continuing audience demand for The Rocky Horror Show represents the successful revenge of live theater against the predations of the cinema. Britisher Richard O’Brien, who played the original Riff-Raff in the stage premiere (1973) and movie (1975), wrote everything in the show as a giant travesty of Hollywood horror-flick conventions. Late in the action O’Brien cites RKO Radio Pictures, but he’s also thinking of Universal. The midnight showings of the movie prompted raucous audience participation, like shouting “Damn it, Janet! “or “Booooring,” and throwing pre-selected projectiles.
The movie is still in release after 37 years, an incomparable world record. But you can have only so much fun with shadows on a screen, even less in digital projection. So that takes us back to the live theater, where perfect timing comes more readily, and performers in the firing line for verbal abuse get to strike back.
Lightcap relies on the gifts of two generous collaborators. Music director Josh Smith leads a hard-driving, five-player ensemble named Lips, which fills the New York State Fairgrounds’ New Times Theater with good vibrations. Donning a raffish hat, Smith also covers with vocals at strategic times to allow for mass costume changes. Choreographer Shannon Tompkins invests the signature number “Time Warp” with manic energy. The dance numbers aren’t supposed to be Bob Fosse’s, but rather something infectious that gets the audience up on its feet. And they do.
Five vital roles stay the same as the last outing two years ago, and there was no reason to change so much false eyelash. John DiDonna, now a theater professor in Florida, comes back to play the dominating figure of Dr. Frank-N-Furter for each production because he simply owns the role. True, his portrayal has something of the swagger and snarl of Tim Curry in the movie, which is fine, but DiDonna adds a certain grit. He looks as though he might once have been on the prowl near Pond Street on the North Side. Throw some rubbish at him, and he’s likely to throw it back. Still a top musician as well, his “Sweet Transvestite” stops the show, the way it is supposed to.
Marianna Ranieri, up from New York City, reprises her debauched Magenta. Bill Ali, with new tattoos on his forearms, arrives on motorcycle to deliver his Eddie’s show-stopping “Hot Patootie.” Gennaro Parlato is also back as the Strangelovian Dr. Scott, as well as red-wigged Sara Weiler as the groupie Columbia, with a scream running to a higher pitch than anything from Fay Wray. She leads the Transylvanians in “The Floorshow (Rose Tint My World).”
New since the 2010 production but still reprising two earlier appearances is local musician David Tyler as the insinuating and sardonic Riff-Raff. Tyler establishes that nefarious personality early, a quiet counterpart to Frank-N-Furter, who’s plotting his own insurrection, as well as incest.
Four performers are new to this show, and all add fresh blood to keep the beast growling. As the innocents lost on a dark and stormy night, Garrett Heater as Brad and Laura Helm as Janet bring the kinds of faces Central Casting would assign to Mormon missionaries.
Heater, a multiple Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) winner and one of the most familiar figures in town, is the more surprising. Could this guy have given us a demonic Joan Crawford in Judy’s Scary Christmas just a year ago? Completely bereft of irony, his Brad is a stiff-necked square who’s mad as heck and just doesn’t want to take it anymore.
Laura Helm, a very recent graduate of the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, is a major find. Blessed with a silvery soprano, with much strength in the upper register, Helm also turns out to be an effervescent light comedienne. Also a game girl, she transforms Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s pulling off of Janet’s blouse into a revelation. Make that two revelations.
Big, blond Derek Potocki, a familiar face in several recent shows, uncovers smooth, rippling hairless muscles as monster-baby Rocky, the nominal title character. The program reveals that Potocki has also worked as a professional wrestler, something not mentioned in other contexts but evident from his histrionics here. He boasts strong musical chops in the first act’s “Sword of Damocles.”
The only casting coming out substantially different this year is Patrick Pedro as the pompous Narrator, usually the most thankless job in local theater. The late, beloved broadcaster Alan Milair followed the tradition of the British stage and film models: unruffled sonority. Pedro, a lawyer with Bond, Schoeneck & King as well as the president of the Everson Museum’s board of trustees, takes a more authoritative and assertive tone. He makes strong eye contact and speaks in sharp, declarative sentences. When the catcalls and “Booooring” drones come, as we know they must, he fights back with rough language, but not quite profanity. At one point he roars at the mob that they sound like Rush Limbaugh’s relatives. It goads them on.
The Talent Company’s Rocky Horror Show is a Syracuse classic. The beat goes on, and so does the rice, toast, playing cards and toilet paper.
This production runs through Saturday, Oct. 27. See Times Table for information.