It takes some doing to suck the fun out of "The Rocky Horror Show," but the Actors' Theatre of Washington has managed the trick. The 1970s cult film favorite has gone a little punk (not that it hasn't been there before -- heck, the Plasmatics' Wendy O. Williams once did a stint in the show) and is being performed as a noisy blur in Nation, the cavernous Southeast nightclub.
Director Jeffrey Johnson's stripped-down rock show staging actually starts out with promise as the big-voiced Rachel Anne Warren, heavily made up and smiling blissfully, descends from the balcony over the bar and croons the opener, "Science Fiction/Double Feature." Aided by a half-dozen or so leering, tarted-up, pansexual Transylvanians who aren't shy about giving the clientele a friendly pinch, Warren guides the audience out of the bar and toward Nation's wide stage, where designer Kevin Clark keeps the lights spinning and Mark Wujcik's lean set is not much more than a ramp at the front and projections in back. In the middle, a rock band churns out writer-composer Richard O'Brien's infectious, cheeky tunes ("Time Warp," "Sweet Transvestite," "Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch Me").
But Johnson quickly gets gummed up trying to accelerate the show's rock-and-roll energy at the expense of everything else -- O'Brien's sendup of B-movies, the gleefully twisted stock characters, even the goofy songs. "Rocky Horror," a long-playing staple as a midnight movie and (originally) as a deranged stage musical, is a smorgasbord of high-spirited camp. What else would you call it when two squeaky-clean young lovers, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, suffer an auto breakdown on a dark and stormy night, then stumble into a Gothic castle full of sexually adventurous aliens from outer space?
This is typically a comic feast for the cast, but the Actors' Theatre has pretty much abandoned acting this time out. Instead, costume designer Michele Reisch and hair/makeup designer Christie Kelley see to it that everyone is given a distinctive look, and since the singing is largely undistinguished and the acting is fast and shrill, the performances don't get much beyond that. (It didn't help that the sound system cut in and out during Friday's opening.) Jordan Price, as the bland Brad, wears oversize black-framed glasses that make him look like Buddy Holly in a gray suit and, not much later, like Buddy Holly in white underwear. As Riff Raff, the creepy sidekick of alien ringleader and hedonist extraordinaire Frank N. Furter, the shirtless Nick Blaemire sports high heels, red leather pants, a long jacket and glittered skin, persuasively conjuring David Bowie in his glam days.
Meat Loaf played Eddie in the movie and delivered a terrific cockeyed rock turn, belting "Hot Patootie, Bless My Soul." Johnson and musical director Stephen McWilliams take a different tack with the number, going all-out punk: Head-banging Transylvanians thrash in a red metal cage and the spike-haired Andrew Mitchell renders the chorus as a jackhammer chant ("Hot-pa-too-tie-bless-my-soul . . ."). The idea may be okay, but the execution is a mess. If the audience didn't know the show cold -- and on Friday night, most of them did, flicking Bics during "Over at the Frankenstein Place" and supplying the audience participation shout-backs that have long been traditional -- they'd never guess who Eddie was or why he was there.
As Frank N. Furter, Rick Hammerly steps out of Tim Curry's shadow and into Cher's. (Similarities include a low, warbling singing voice and a skinny, not-quite-covered tush sashaying around the stage.) Hammerly emerges from a coffin wearing black hot pants, red fishnets and a corset; his head is shaved, his lips are thickly painted scarlet, and when he spreads his lanky arms and snarls his songs, he looks like a bizarre bird of prey.
Hammerly struts the ramp with authority and is no slouch with a punch line, but he and Johnson unfortunately seem to have bought into the "dark for dark's sake" aesthetic that's generally in vogue, focusing strictly on the character as a demented brute and supplying him with the odd snort of coke, as if being a power-mad sex fiend from outer space weren't quite enough to work with. It's a letdown that Hammerly doesn't try to put his own stamp on the deliciously puckish seduction Curry flaunted as the original Furter.
But half a character and a handful of laughs is more than anyone else offers up.
The Rocky Horror Show, by Richard O'Brien. Directed and choreographed by Jeffrey Johnson. Sound design, Matt Rowe. With Meghan Touey, Meagan Flannery, Ray Hagen, Peter Klaus, Elish Healy, Maxwell Hessman, Courtney Tisch, Matthew Schleigh, Briana Zakszeski and Eric Thompson. Approximately 95 minutes. Through July 25 at Nation, 1015 Half St. SE. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.