You'll Really Love This Rock N'Roll
In my seat, there is a moment of trepidation. $5 prop bag on the table, ready to go, I begin to wonder how this production will hold up to its movie counterpart. Surely, this was a common thought among those who have only seen the movie and not the stage production, I told myself. How could I distance myself from comparing these actors to performances that are enshrined forever on celluloid frames? In that split second, I am fraught with anxiety because I would have to write about the production afterwards.
Then: Jenny Shiroma and her band ring out familiar tunes, and there is a projection of the iconic red lips that accompany the many iterations of Rocky Horror. Two Usherettes (Ixchel Samaniego & Tiffany Yamauchi) take the higher platforms of the stage while the rest of the ensemble, the Phantoms, accent the first song, “Science Fiction / Double Feature” with sharp and witty choreography by Katherine L. Jones. As Yamauchi and Samaniego take turns crooning the meta love letter to the movies that inspired Rocky Horror, we are treated to Robert Matsushita’s projections as it’s an inspired decision to show the various movies and people that are referenced during the song, further cementing the realm of science-fiction, B-movie horror, and camp that we are about to enter.
As the cast burst into their refrain, whatever silly initial fears I had were wiped away. Rob Duval, alongside his design team and cast, have made sure to go all out in their iteration of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, making a production that steps out of the shadow of its movie predecessor as it maintains the spirit of the production while remaining fresh and dynamic with its performances. This is a production best enjoyed live, as I have learned that night, but this is a fact known the world over, apparently- THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW as a stage musical existed before the movie.
The musical, now over 40 years old, means something special and different to everyone, and Manoa Valley Theatre is the place to relieve those memories as they produce the final show of their 50th Season.
THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW is a comedic love letter to the science-fiction and horror movies from about the 1940s through the early 1970s, name dropping many of its inspirations in its opening number. The plot is thus: Brad Majors (Nick Amador) and Janet Weiss (Alexandria Zinov) have recently gotten engaged, and while they seem over the moon with each other they are clearly stiff and repressed in a very 1950’s kind of way. The Narrator (LeGrand Lawrence) explains the two are on the way to visit their science teacher, Dr. Scott (Montana West Rizzuto), but a thunderstorm interrupts their journey and they end up asking for help at a castle that has the lights on. There, they are introduced to the inhabitants of the castle: the butler Riff Raff (Jared Duldulao), the maid Magenta (Ixchel Samaniego), Columbia (Natalie Borsky), and a mess of Transylvanians. In a grand reveal, Brad, Janet, and the audience are introduced to the master of the spooky locale: the mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Jarren Amian), who introduces himself as a “a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.” Frank-N-Furter wishes to show the budding couple his latest creation: a muscular man with blonde hair named Rocky (Colin Gardner). Throughout the evening, Brad and Janet find themselves opening up sexually in different ways and face the many pleasures and horrors that Frank-N-Furter revels in.
There are several elements in this production to enjoy. Starting with the performances, the cast is an absolute unit, working in tandem with each other to not miss a cue, a beat, or a move. The ensemble work is especially tight: Duval and Jones have their Phantoms/Transylvanians (the title changes depending on where they are in the production) supporting the production beautifully, from becoming a fully functional car, to the sharp and witty choreography that punctuate the numbers I mentioned earlier, all the way to having them channel the pleasures of Frank-N-Furter’s castle in suggestive tableaus. Amador and Zinov’s Brad and Janet are wonderful to watch, as seeing each character react and struggle/accept their budding desires in their own ways is interesting to chart over the evening. Lawrence’s Narrator rings pitch perfect, playing an excellent storyteller throughout the night. Rizutto’s Eddie is a rock n’roll treat, owning the stage for a number, and just when you start to miss him he returns as Dr. Scott, delightfully flexing Rizutto’s comedic muscles as well for the rest of the show. Our hearts ache and feel for Borsky’s Columbia the more we find out about her, and Duldulao and Samaniego are appropriately spooky and creepy (and hilarious when the moment calls for it) as Riff Raff and Magenta, the brother and sister duo. Gardner, as the creation Rocky, is appropriately stiff and bewildered looking at different points in the production (he was literally just created after all), and holds his own as a creature discovering himself, his emotions, and his own wants and needs. Finally, Amian as Frank-N-Furter dominates (in more ways than one). I imagine it’s difficult to perform a role that Tim Curry himself originated (and thus will inevitably get compared to), but Amian’s full and reckless dive into the twisted, charismatic, and hungry mind of Frank-N-Furter is a pleasure to watch, owning the stage and making the performance fully his own (much like his cast mates before him).
Like I mentioned, Duval’s design team helps leave a memorable impression as well. Shiroma’s musical direction is lovely to hear, as she has led the cast into hitting the delightful separate parts and harmonies that can be heard on the Original Roxy Cast album. In fact, I firmly believe the music of the stage production is better than the movie adaptation, and the cast and band do it justice wholly. The costume designs by Jennifer Hart and Trudy Hodnefield and Lisa Ponce de Leon’s hair & makeup design were really fun to see in action; the principal characters had distinct looks that they all needed to have, but I especially loved the designs of the Phantoms/Transylvanians, as well as the complete transformation Rizutto had to be put through to be two different characters. MJ Matsushita as the set designer and scenic artist has created an impressive castle (and office for the Narrator), painted with the craft that makes it fit squarely in the movie genres the musical is a send-off to. Janine Myers’ appropriate and on point lighting (and lightning!) and Jason Taglianetti’s sound design elevate the production, immersing the audience in the rain soaked night filled with technology and ray beams. Last but not least, Sara Ward’s prop design hits the mark as well, with a keen eye to detail and even getting time to squeeze in tongue-in-cheek elements as well (see: Frank-N-Furter’s joystick!).
For $5, you may purchase a prop bag filled with elements that make the production interactive. They are mostly objects to be thrown at certain lines, but be mindful not to throw the items onstage or at the performers. You may have the list of props to throw at home, and may be thinking to bring your own prop bag to save money (or have more fun). Please do not, as it’ll be confiscated by the spooky ushers and usherettes in the house! A souvenir “toast” prop is included in the bag to remember the night by, even though there is no dinner scene to throw the toast at.
Audience participation is the reason The Rocky Horror Picture Show (and the stage production as well) has remained a hit all these years- many rules are widely agreed on, and even then some regions and theatres have their own house rules. The program lists a few standard ad-lib/talk back lines, but if you’re the type that has the list memorized and are rearing to go (as one audience member was wont to do the night I saw the show), then feel free to cut loose! The cast plays with the lines well, not batting an eye as various lines, expletives, and jokes are hurled. The audience member I mentioned was not a plant, so every night may be different in the degrees of interaction; fret not, the performance itself is the highlight of the evening and no matter what, you shouldn’t be disappointed.
Before I conclude, there are a couple of elements that gave me pause, especially in the day and age of #metoo. I understand these elements are part of the whole package, and that individuals of all persuasions and genders have been engaging in this show for decades. There are just a couple of instances that again, gave me pause (but moved passed easily because of the pace of the show), and others may feel the same, or feel it stronger than I did. One of the common and standard ad-libs is calling “slut” every time Janet is mentioned, and personally it felt hurtful and excessive to keep doing it. I also recalled (and heard via the aforementioned audience member) that there are many other lines attacking Janet’s promiscuity. Also, at the top of Act 2, Frank-N-Furter disguises himself as Brad and Janet and advances himself separately upon each of them before being found out. They both initially say no, but eventually give in, asking Frank-N-Furter not to tell the other. The musical was written long before the #metoo movement, and it is often said that things like this are part of the genre. Not to mention, as liberated as Frank-N-Futer is, the character is nowhere near any moral standards as he is Dionysian in his way of living and is not afraid to get rid of anyone he sees no use for. Like an old movie that you used to enjoy but see in another framing now, this is something to acknowledge within the production. It is a product of its time, and the production itself does not linger with it longer than it has to. This does not mean the whole show is ruined, or that we’re all bad people for laughing (the shock factor of the silhouettes in the scene will catch you off guard no matter what). There may be even more problematic elements that I didn’t notice this go-around, mostly because I was so moved by the music and cast performances (the cast is undeniably charismatic, all of them). Ultimately, the take-away is thus: to recognize this was a product of its time, that no one in the production is actively promoting unwanted sexual advances, and that there is a reason why scenes like this are not written in media today. We, like Brad and Janet, live and learn through the experiences we share, both good and bad, both scary and pleasurable. As for the audience interaction, I gave up about twenty minutes in since the other audience member covered the show for the entire audience; you could always elect to not to engage in the more problematic lines or make up your own, but be aware there may be purists seeing the show committed to slut-shaming Janet.
The show closes with a reprise of “Science Fiction / Double Feature” as well as a round of The Time Warp after the cast’s final bows. Join them where you are seated! The production is loud, sharp, and fun, and Duval and his team have clearly had a lot of fun crafting this cult-turned-mainstream hit for MVT’s final show of its 50th season. What a note to end on! THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW is running at Manoa Valley Theatre Wedesdays through Sundays, and have added performances to their run, meaning the production is now running through August 18. For tickets, click here.