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Theater Review: “The Rocky Horror Show” at Studio Theatre

The cult musical gets a revival at Studio on the 40th anniversary of its debut run.

Mitchell Jarvis as Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show. Photograph by Igor Dmitry.

In the glorious mashup of B-movies, Barbarella, and BDSM that is The Rocky Horror Show, Richard O’Brien offers distinctly mixed messages trussed up in leather and lace. Is it better to be Brad and Janet, who ultimately escape their orgiastic weekend of overindulgence with little more than a queasy hangover, or Frank N. Furter, whose unfettered reveling in his own outlandishness ultimately leads to his downfall?

In Studio Theatre’s production of Rocky Horror, staged to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the show’s original London run, Frank’s house of debauchery is less a garden of earthly delights and more a nightmarish darkroom under the influence of bath salts. Directed by Studio’s Keith Alan Baker and Shakespeare Theatre’s Alan Paul, the show’s cast is led by Mitchell Jarvis (Broadway’s Rock of Ages), whose Frank is, quite simply, terrifying. With grotesque makeup smeared all over his face (like a cross between Pennywise the Clown and Baby Jane) we first meet Frank as he snorts something off a tray and then leers, bug-eyed, at his new playthings with the frantic air of a tweaker on a four-day meth binge.

He’s mesmerizing, and the contrast between Frank’s monstrous mania and the ’50s wholesomeness of Brad (Tim Rogan) and Janet (Jessica Thorne) has never been more pronounced. Still, the amphetamine-fueled energy seeps into the first act, which rattles along at a frightening pace after the ensemble cast lets loose in a stellar rendition of “The Time Warp.” There’s barely time to pause for breath.

The chorus, an uninhibited group who linger in the aisles before and during songs to preen and prowl among the audience, sport minimal clothing by costume designer Collin Ranney, who’s found a number of creative ways to incorporate microphone transmitters into the cast’s underwear—Rocky (William Hayes), who wears a green mankini à la Borat, must have been particularly challenging. Most actors are in torn fishnets and some kind of elaborate PVC corsetry, with the exception of one, who’s limited to a thong and the decorations his tattooist gave him.

All this dark, pulsating energy would be more fun in the musical numbers if the sound quality were better—on press night some cast members, particularly Thorne, were overamplified. Hayes, who’s undeniably godlike as a physical specimen, can nevertheless tend toward sounding flat in some of his solos. But it’s hard to fault Jarvis in his thrilling “Sweet Tranvestite,” or Matthew G. Meyers as Eddie, whose rendition of “Hot Patootie” is so good you can understand why a jealous Frank chases him down with a chainsaw. There’s only room for one star in this house of horrors, clearly.

Giorgos Tsappas’s set enhances the rave-like contemporary feel of it all, with dark gray walls, steel scaffolding, and sheets of tarpaulin doing double duty as walls and the backdrop for Erik Trester’s projections, which feel uncomfortably real at times. Having the cast perform all around the audience makes this an all-encompassing experience—if you have an aisle seat, you’ll be able to smell the sweat and whatever drugstore products the actors use to facilitate taking off all that pleather. But it can also feel a little high-schoolish when the ensemble are strutting around like 13-year-olds let loose in a friendly dominatrix’s wardrobe.

Matthew Delorenzo, so gorgeous as Candy Darling in Studio’s Pop, is equally alluring here as Columbia, and Kayla Dixon is a charmingly quirky Magenta. Sarah Marshall winkingly subverts the drag traditions of the show by playing both the grandmotherly narrator and the heavily accented, Hitler-mustache-wearing Dr. Scott. The choreography by Michael Bobbitt is solid, but the live band, led by George Fulginiti-Shakar, suffers from the spotty sound issues. It might seem a strange thing to say about a musical detailing the sexual exploits of a transvestite alien and his groupies, but this is a surprisingly earthy Rocky Horror with a jagged, contemporary energy that at times could benefit hugely from a little restraint (and not the handcuffs kind).

The Rocky Horror Show is at Studio Theatre through August 4. Running time is about two hours, including one intermission. Tickets ($43 to $48) are available at Studio’s website.

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