Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show seems to be etched in stone as to how it is expected to appear on stage. Images from its early uber-glam productions and its cult classic status as a film, with the word Picture added to the title, have pressed on the consciousness of culture itself.
However, director/choreographer Ilana Ransom Toeplitz has re-conceptualized the work at Park Square Theatre, still attuned to those characteristics of the original, while bringing forth a smooth elegance not seen in other productions. Her Rocky Horror has a lighter touch, which makes sense in 2019. Dr. Frank-N- Furter, the ghoulish mad scientist who plays a high-tech God-like innovator (or Goddess, as some would say) was originally conceived as a menacing transgender figure ripped from the 1930s horror films and the Hammer Studios genre and set in Transylvania. Or as referred to in the musical, “Transsexual Transylvania”. Cisgender men typically play the role and relish the macabre element of what O’Brien would have called transvestism.
As played by a cisgender woman at Park Square, “Frank” is more of a femme fatale vamp and Gracie Anderson exudes magically erotic power, dominatrix-like in style. She has a great singing voice to match. This casting choice, though it transmits a different message than a cisgender male actor does, works because of Anderson’s take-charge attitude. In its own way it extends O’Brien’s irreverence in a new, but still nonetheless, transgressive direction.
Ben Lohrberg and Natalie Shaw as Brad and Janet perfectly capture the innocence of young people who’ve lived very sheltered lives. Therefore, when Fate leads the naive young couple to Frank’s castle where she creates new human life in the form of hunky himbo Rocky (a playfully mischievous Rush Benson), they get their sexual consciousness raised a bit too abruptly.
This sexual awakening can be argued as being the core point of the rock musical and Toeplitz’s actors have illuminated that better than any of the productions of O’Brien’s groundbreaker I’ve seen over the decades. The focus on that awakening is wondrously natural at Park Square. Far less scary, creepy, and frankly (no pun intended) far less sexually malevolent. This is why in the current century, Rocky Horror has come to be thought of by some as transphobic and homophobic. Toeplitz attempts to fix that.
Music director Andrew Fleser’s musicians actually have us hear O’Brien’s score in a fresh way. The typically punk overdrive that one associates with the show is not as prominent, therefore, we hear the musicality of the tunes more vividly. As someone long familiar with Rocky Horror Show, I heard the influences of Leiber & Stoller and of sounds particular to rock ‘n roll of the late 1960s and early ’70s for the first time. The vocals coached by Foster Johns are clearer and more coherent than other productions. Fleser, Johns and Toeplitz respect the material in a new and unique way. And it pays off satisfyingly indeed, suiting the sexual awakening awareness in a groovy way.
Park Square’s visuals are lovely too. Andrew Griffin’s lighting washes and bathes with strong resplendent solid colors. An-Lin Dauber’s set is elegantly spare rather than a moldy old castle look and suggestiveness of other productions. Nicole DelPizzo’s props are often quite funny, especially the dildos.
’70s glam resonates from Rebecca Bernstein’s costumes and Robert Dunn’s wigs. The same resonates from fun performances by Celena Vera Morgan as Columbia, Cameron Reeves as Eddie, and Hope Nordquist as a mysterious Magenta. This genderbending and sexual orientation-bending classic is narrated by a fabulous Ricky Morisseau.
Sara Ochs tickles the funnybone as Dr. Scott, a role typically played by a cisgender man. But one of the glory touches at Park Square is its nod to vintage horror flicks with Randy Schmeling’s drippingly tasty turn as Frank’s servant from outer space, Riff Raff, in a voice impressively similar to that of Boris Karloff.
The Rocky Horror Show
Through Nov. 2
Park Square Theatre, 20W. 7th Place, St. Paul