Saturday, October 29, 2016

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW 2016: A bagel of a remake

‘The [original] show emerged as a thoroughly entertaining 80 minutes, endearing in its half-attempts to outrage, innocently unsexy with its black suspenders, cross-dressing, tap-dancing and silhouetted grunting, always keeping to the comic-strip and avoiding the campy, and inspiring the same enjoyment as the ghastly-funny films which were its inspiration’. (Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre)

Rocky the stage show and I go back a long way. Right back to that very first production of 1973. I can’t remember whether I saw it at the Royal Court, but I do recall seeing it in the King’s Road and, again, when it transferred rather uncomfortably to the West End, where its delightful ingenuousness and its little message of ‘don’t dream it, be it’ (ie, screw whomsoever you like) had become a bit polished and middle-class. The production was made into a deliciously low-budget film, with many of the original cast, which captured the flavour and essence of the original splendidly.

‘A film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with Curry, O'Brien, Quinn and Little Nell featured alongside Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, was a quick failure, but only a temporary one. It later became a late-night campus favourite and, as the show had done in the King's Road, began to attract regulars. A cult grew up, complete with little audience rituals performed with matches, rice, water and frozen peas and involving chanted responses to the dialogue, as the film found itself a semi-permanent home in a number of specialist cinemas. In Britain, would-be cultists could not find the film, but regional theatres and then the touring circuits took up the stage show and British youngsters transferred the American film liturgy to the stage show. It proved so popular, that soon -- in contrast to the lesson learned earlier -- the show was playing some of the vaster provincial houses to accommodate the audience demand. Fortunately, they also had the staff to clean up the water, the matches, the unfrozen peas and the soggy rice, but many a Rocky musical director bewailed a synth keyboard clogged up by rice between the keys.

Under the influence of all this flim-flam, of course, the character of the show as first staged got lost. The performance became like an interactive game, and many of the performers lost the innocently winning tone of the original, which was now replaced by a kind of pantomime silliness. At one stage, in the British provinces, the essentially masculine Frank 'n' Furter was played by a female impersonator…’

The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with the young Tim Curry as the classic Frank, is a wee classic of its era, which shouts infintesimal budget and has all the flavour of the Royal Court Upstairs. So why, in 2016, has Fox remade it? Does the youth of today not respond to the original style and cast of the show, which are and were so integral to the nature and success of Rocky? Do they need a more C21th bent and modern film techniques to make it seem ‘relevant’? I suppose so. Anyway, Rocky 2016 came on my screen this week and I settled down to watch it with trepidation. And got one huge surprise. It was (almost) great. It was certainly highly enjoyable. The director has kept the necessary Upstairs flavour, it was shiny but tatty, re-orchestrated of course and enlarged as to cast, but mostly seemed to stick to the ‘real’ script and scenes, and most of the principal roles were superbly filled.

My personal favourites were Adam Lambert (whom I know only as one of the better talent quest pontificators) as a searing, rocking, sexy Eddie – Frank must have been mad to consider him second-rate goods – and Annaleigh Ashford, who was so convincing and perfect as Columbia that she almost stepped out of the comic-book and into the real and dramatic.

Next up: Janet. Victoria Justice was the Janet of my dreams, with a delicious petite soprano topping off a grand ingénue performance and hurrah! A brunette. Once again I can’t imagine the role better played.

Staz Nair was a copybook Rocky, down to the (not very) little gold shorts, sweetly clunky and wide-eyed, not Schwarzenegger muscle-bound, and giving us some of our best laughs, as when Janet sweetly admitted to not liking muscled men and Frank hissed ‘I didn’t make him for you..!’. But she got him anyway.

Ryan McCartan is probably my favourite Brad of recent decades, and the casting of the starry Ben Vereen as Dr Scott was a good trick, though one would have liked to see more of the famous legs. Reeve Carney was a nicely understated Riff Raff, Christina Milian a pneumatic and rather overstated Magenta … and that leaves the hole in the bagel. The reason I probably won’t watch this Rocky again, in spite of its multiple joys.

I don’t know who Laverne Cox is, but he/she should never have been cast in the role of Frank ‘n’ Furter. Frank is a man. A man. He is a ‘sweet transvestite’. A man wearing women’s clothes. He is not an hermaphrodite. This Frank, with breasts bulging out of his ott costumes, reminded me of the sad days when various drag queens were cast in the role in the British provinces. The whole guts and heart went out of the show. The central character had been destroyed. And so it was here. It was only the brilliant casting of the rest of the roles which stopped the show from sinking into the hole in the centre of the affair created by this wholly unsuitable idea.

What a damned, damned shame. When all else in the staging, directing and casting was so superbly managed. I wonder what poor Tim Curry, looking ever so old and ill (I gather he, like me, has suffered a stroke) popping in a few words here and there as the narrator, thought of what had become of his famous role.

So, my verdict. A very tasty bagel indeed. With a big hole in the middle.

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