Beat Transvestite

Time-warped Rocky Horror Show pitches camp onstage-- and strikes out

It is a few minutes before midnight on a recent Saturday and I am about to relive my childhood in a dark, smelly moviehouse in Tempe. Now surrounded by people half my age who are excited just to be awake at this hour, I required an afternoon nap just to make the late showtime; I've never felt so middle-aged in my life.

Just as I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show dozens of times as a teenager in this very theater, I am now about to watch it again with a couple hundred kids and a handful of drag queens. In the 20-odd years since I last saw it, Rocky Horror has eclipsed its trashy rock 'n' roll roots and become a peculiar piece of pop culture. Originally a musical-theater tribute to Sixties sci-fi flicks, the show was fashioned into one of the most-seen films of all time, spawning a multimillion-dollar cottage industry and introducing the phrases "midnight movie" and "audience participation" into the lexicon of the movies.

And now, thanks to Todd James Smeltzer Productions, Richard O'Brien's campy rock musical has come full circle: In the new local production that premiered as The Rocky Horror Show on October 22, Rocky has become a theatrical tribute to the film version of a musical play about old movies.

Smeltzer, who slunk into town early last season to produce schmaltzy musical revivals, is marketing this Rocky as a theatrical celebration of the movie rather than a remounting of the play. He's staging the show at Valley Art Theatre, where the movie has played midnights since 1976. In the lobby, Smeltzer is selling the props--toilet paper, rice and flashlights--that audience members have been hurling at the movie version for decades, and the familiar insults that Rocky rowdies shout at screenings are projected onto a scrim so that theater crowds can keep up.

All this hoo-ha serves mostly to blur the line between the play and its famous film counterpart, and begs the question: Isn't The Rocky Horror Show superfluous? The movie has been playing here since 1979, and Valley Art already has an amateur troupe of Rocky regulars who act out the entire show while the movie plays behind them. Why go see the play?

"This production is more of a celebration of the whole Rocky Horror phenomenon than it is an excuse to present the original," says Smeltzer, who sounds occasionally like a press agent for The Sound of Music. "This show appeals to all ages. It's all about fun and people and life."

No it isn't. Rocky Horror is about transvestism, murder and cannibalism. Its central theme, "don't dream it, be it," is not a motivational manifesto but a libidinous call for orgiastic sex. Once a shocking counterculture freak show that could only make it on the midnight circuit, Rocky has become a teenage rite of passage for suburban kids with nothing to do on Friday night.

Perhaps Smeltzer is selling his Rocky Horror as a cinematic tribute because he knows the show has lost its relevance. The musical was shocking and thought-provoking in an era when there were no lesbians on TV sitcoms, back when one had to go to a midnight movie to see a guy in a leather corset sing about having sex with men. (In 1975, posters for the original film release featuring a photo of Tim Curry in torn fishnets with the tag line, "He's the hero--that's right, the hero!" were scrapped by 20th Century Fox because they were "too lurid.") Today, Rocky is so tame that it shows up as a plot point on television shows like The Drew Carey Show and Charles in Charge; where kids once sneaked out of the house to go see the movie, they're now signing on to one of more than 100 Rocky Horror Web sites written by people their parents' age.

Smeltzer has attempted to restore some of the show's shock value with nudity and a lesbian-sex scene. But to show Janet's tits is to miss the point: She's the young Republican who'd sooner die than remove her blouse in a roomful of strangers; she and her nerdy beau provide the contrast for the castle full of freaks they've encountered. And making the show slick and shiny with the high-tech wizardry that Smeltzer has brought along is pointless--Rocky Horror is meant to be small-scale and tatty, a sleazy send-up of sexual taboos and Hammer horror films that any teenager can put together with a handful of sequins and a plastic ray gun.

Yet Smeltzer insists that Rocky deserves an upscale update. "We've brought the music into the Nineties by making it more hard rock," he says, although every production since the Tin Pan Alleyesque London premiere has been scored with trashy, prepunk glitter rock. Smeltzer is full of such erroneous Rocky trivia. He insists that the film was shot on location at L.A.'s Roxy Theater in 1975 (it was lensed the year before in England), and he's never heard of Trixie, one of the characters from the original production. During a rehearsal the week before the show opens, he shouts catcalls at his cast to prepare it for the words the audience will fling at it during each performance. But he calls out the wrong lines in all the wrong places, and his actors roll their eyes and mutter under their breaths while they form a kick line that's been lifted straight from the film.

Smeltzer has made some unusual casting choices. His Janet is a dead-on babe, a perky blonde newscaster type who would never have given Brad Majors a second glance. And Rocky Horror, whose muscle-man physique is referred to in several songs and who inspires passion in several of the characters, is played here by 98-pound Chris Childers, an anemic young actor who wouldn't know a deltoid if it entered him from behind. He's a little silly singing "I'm just seven hours old/Truly beautiful to behold," and I wanted to throw a trenchcoat over him after watching him wander around in teeny gold swim trunks for two hours. Alex Gonzales' Frank N. Furter reminded me of Gary Glitter's late-Seventies portrayal of the sweet transvestite, but the rest of the cast members seem content emulating their big-screen counterparts. (Linda Griego may be ripping off Little Nell's movie take on Columbia, but she's still a riveting performer with a great set of pipes.)

Despite all the allusions to the movie, there are some interesting bits: "Eddie's Teddy," in which the cast mourns a scary degenerate who's recently been murdered onstage, winds up as an amusing homage to the opening credits of The Brady Bunch. And Smeltzer has given Rocky's worst song in the show a fun spin: He's staged "Once in a While," a dreary dirge that's usually dropped from the show, as a fantasy sequence in which Brad performs the song as a cheesy lounge lizard.

The main difference between Smeltzer's production and the cast of Rocky regulars who perform the show at the Valley Art's midnight screenings each week seems to be about $40,000. "I know a lot of people will have a hard time telling the difference between the Valley Art cast and the real live play," he admits. "But we've got computer-driven images from old science-fiction films and a live band. Plus the Valley Art cast has really deteriorated over the years."

When I ask one of the kids at the midnight screening of the movie if she plans to see the musical, she groans. "Look, they're just us with better costumes and a tech crew," she says, puffing on a clove cigarette. "And you're missing the whole point. This isn't about a movie or a play. No one cool is going to pay 18 bucks to see a play when they can come here and be an experience."

The Rocky Horror Show stage production continues through Sunday, November 9, at Valley Art Theatre, 509 South Mill in Tempe. For more details, see the Performance listing in Thrills.

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