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STAGE REVIEW : A Toast! To 'Rocky Horror' : Theater: The cult classic goes back to its roots in a lively stage production that is just as much fun as the movie.

May 17, 1991|BY JOHN GODFREY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Repertory Theatre's production of"The Rocky Horror Show" began about an hour before any actors took the stage on opening night Wednesday. Scores of cross-dressed theatergoers paraded through the Lyceum Theatre lobby, flaunting their outlandish costumes, posing for cameras and excitedly awaiting the stage version of the most popular cult film of all time.

Of course, if you know anything about the "Rocky Horror" experience, you know that the audience likes to get in on the action.

The San Diego Rep's strong, cheeky staging of "The Rocky Horror Show"--which closely approximated the movie--demonstrated that audience participation can have a dramatic effect on a theatrical production. On Wednesday, a screaming, dancing audience helped create a rock-concert environment at the Lyceum stage, and the Rep's talented cast succeeded in incorporating the crowd's involvement.

"The Rocky Horror Show" is a silly little musical comedy, but the Rep's production placed the emphasis on fun, and the production was a success.

Richard O'Brien's rock musical "The Rocky Horror Show" debuted in a 60-seat London theater in 1973. The B-grade horror/science-fiction movie spoof was an immediate success, moved to a larger venue and ran for seven years. A film adaptation--"The Rocky Horror Picture Show"--was released in 1975 and has since become a participatory adventure. At the mostly midnight screenings, "Rocky Horror" fans dress like their favorite characters, perform their favorite roles, talk back to the screen and even throw props at the projected images, such as real toast when a toast is proposed.

Why all the fuss? For starters, "Rocky Horror" deals with alternative lifestyles. The main character, Dr. Frank N. Furter, is a transvestite and his castle is a den of hedonistic activity. To some, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is an affirmation of individuality and sexual freedom. To others, it is a B-movie about B-movies.

Either way, the Rep's production is a kick. The electric current buzzing throughout the lobby carried over onto the Lyceum Stage. Three performers dressed as ushers worked the crowd, hawking gummy worms to the highest bidder. After igniting some audience interaction (not to mention some intense bidding), the actors found their way on stage and introduced the production.

"How many of you have never seen the 'Rocky Horror' experience--either film or stage?" actor Osayande Baruti asked. About a quarter of the sold-out opening-night audience stood to say they hadn't.

The more experienced audience members promptly chanted: "Vir-gins! Vir-gins! Vir-gins!" enacting a ritual common to the film screenings.

The show had begun.

The Rep's staging progressed much like the film: The best scenes and the best shock-rock songs all occur during the first half of the production. Characters make grand, dramatic entrances, but have little to do after that.

The story begins when Janet (Michelle Murlin-Gardner) catches a bouquet at a friend's wedding and her boyfriend, Brad, (Gregory Linus Weiss) immediately proposes. Their subsequent duet, "Dammit, Janet," is a splendidly schmaltzy tribute to young love. (Incidentally, the crowd sang background vocals for this tune.)

Events quickly turn sour for the nerdy young lovers when their car gets a flat tire. The two seek refuge in a nearby castle and stumble across a bizarre party. The revelers, caked in makeup and dressed in sado-masochistic attire, sing the show's most popular tune, "Time Warp," and the couple is trapped in the seedy dwelling.

Dr. Frank N. Furter (Sean Murray) runs the castle, and he also initiates the play's action. Furter seduces--separately--both Janet and Brad and upsets their wedding plans. He also unveils Rocky (Robert Rieck), a Frankensteinian creation who runs amok in the castle, and when Rocky spurns Furter's amorous advances, Furter goes on a rampage and brings about his own downfall.

The plot doesn't matter, of course, particularly not in this staging. Performances are central and they are uniformly good.

As the tap-dancing groupie Columbia, Tracey A. Leigh squeals and squeaks with cartoonish appeal. Robert Rieck's scantily clad Rocky is similarly extreme, just what the production calls for. Mary Bond Davis (Eddie and Dr. Scott), Baruti (an usher and Riff Raff) and Michele Mais (Madame M and Magenta) also turned in strong performances.

Murray revels in Dr. Frank N. Furter's debauched transsexuality, prancing across the stage with garish aplomb, singing and dancing with a blunt, in-your-face defiance. Murray's comic timing came to the forefront during his solo ode to sexual freedom, "Sweet Transvestite."

The actor also demonstrated a clever wit about a third of the way through the show. When a small group of "Rocky Horror" fans began shouting uncontrollably during one scene, Murray quieted them down quickly, all the while remaining in character.

"This ain't the movie, it's the play," Murray informed the hecklers. "I bite back. So shut the (expletive) up!"

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