Peter Marks reviews ‘Rocky Horror Show’ at Studio Theatre


Mitchell Jarvis (Frank N. Furter) in "Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show." (Igor Dmitry/Igor Dmitry)

The moment has come for delving into that hypnotic stage ritual that can cause you to space out on sensation — like you’re under sedation. To achieve this altered state, you have to jump to the left. And then a step to the right. But it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insane.

Ladies and gentlemen: Let’s do the time warp. Again.

If you’re uncertain of the origin of the preceding reference, may I suggest that you’ve been living, pop culturally speaking, under a rock. To learn its source, you could resort to boring old Google. Or, alternatively, shimmy on down to Studio Theatre, where musical mayhem and gender confusion reign in a hyperenergetic (if uneven) revival of “The Rocky Horror Show.”

Born in 1973 as a lampoon of all those grainy B movies with the not-very-scary creatures from the black lagoon, “The Rocky Horror Show” evolved into an international hit courtesy of the 1975 movie version, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon. The flick became the staple of a midnight-showing craze, with devotees dressing up as the outrageous characters and shouting out the ribald lyrics by the show’s book and songwriter, Richard O’Brien.

The audience is not encouraged to festoon itself for this new production by Studio’s 2ndStage, distinguished by Mitchell Jarvis’s cannily needy turn as a sexually voracious, glam-punk rendering of Frank N. Furter. In other nutso business, Sarah Marshall brings the right dash of wackadoo to the roles of the narrator and the sinister Dr. Scott. The antics of the amped-up cast are all the acting-out this evening requires, even though directors Keith Alan Baker and Alan Paul don’t as yet deliver an entirely consistent level of polish — particularly in the area of sound design.


Tim Rogan (Brad), Mitchell Jarvis (Frank N. Furter) and Jessica Thorne (Janet) in "Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show." (Igor Dmitry)

“Rocky Horror” is too lazily constructed to be regarded as anything more than a souped-up spoof. Still, in its best sequences, the show churns its parodistic ambitions into schlock-driven, hard-rock fun. The potato-chip-thin plot has it that carnally innocent Brad (Tim Rogan) and Janet (Jessica Thorne) arrive one stormy night at the castle of Furter, who is in the final throes of his greatest achievement, the sparking to life of his own personal sex toy (scantily clad William Hayes), a creation seemingly copied from the pages of Men’s Fitness. The rest of the mock-horror story — an account of Brad and Janet’s initiation into sex as an extreme co-ed sport — feels as though it were consciously assembled from spare parts, too.

This “Rocky” gets most of its zing from Jarvis’s sensual, reptilian Furter, who greets us in a corset, beard and black-feather headdress for a wildcat version of “Sweet Transvestite” that would make Tina Turner proud. Furter’s acolytes — Magenta (Kayla Dixon), Riff Raff (Matthew McGee) and Columbia (M. Delorenzo) — swagger in costume designer Collin Ranney’s Frederick’s of Hollywood-goth get-ups as though they were due to leave soon for a Halloween orgy.

The special effects on this occasion amount to black-and-white clips from old horror movies, interspersed with filmed versions of the sex scenes between Furter and his guests; the homage is both to the musical’s filmic inspirations, as well as to that popular Tim Curry movie. On the bi-level set of the Furter castle, designer Giorgos Tsappas dangles the funny contraption that sends jolts through Hayes’s Rocky.

Acoustically, though, something’s amiss: You sit within feet of the stage in Studio’s Metheny space and yet frequently can’t make out the song lyrics. The actors are drowned out by the band or not providing clear enunciation on their own. And although some of the voices are up to the task — like that of Matthew G. Myers as Eddie, in a rousing “Hot Patootie,” or Rogan, singing “Once in a While” — others have pitch problems or, at times, sound as though they’re caterwauling.

Maybe if the effort to create a frenzy were dialed down half a notch, everyone could fully savor the silliness, and not just those who know the score by heart.

The Rocky Horror Show

book, music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien. Directed by Alan Paul and Keith Alan Baker. Music direction, George Fulginiti-Shakar. Choreography, Michael Bobbitt. Set, Giorgos Tsappas; lighting, Justin Thomas; videos, Erik Trester; costumes, Collin Ranney; sound, Jeffrey Dorfman. About two hours. Through Aug. 4 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. www.studiotheatre.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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