The Haunting of Mill House

"One stray grain of rice on that slick stage floor, and bang!--you're on your ass," frets Bruce Miles. The producer of the Mill Avenue Theatre's impending live rendition of The Rocky Horror Show, speaking during a recent photo session, confesses he doesn't know what to expect of the audience when the offbeat rock operetta opens tomorrow evening. "We're just hoping people will realize they're seeing a play with live actors, not just kids in costumes lip-synching to a movie."

Considering the unprecedented crowd-control problems encountered by Los Angeles' Aquarius Theatre during its 1981 revival of the play--after the movie had become a cult hit--how will MAT handle the very real possibility that some fans may get carried away?

"Well, I doubt we'll go so far as to frisk people," laughs director Ben Tyler, who staged MAT's recent successful run of Tomfoolery and co-starred with Miles in last year's Greater Tuna. "We want everybody to have fun. We don't even mind if they want to dress up. But what we're giving them is a whole new experience, one that's different from the movie in significant ways."

Tyler points out that the dialogue was changed considerably for the film, the songs are not in the same order, and many of the lyrics were altered. "For instance, Rocky sings, yet never speaks a word, in the movie," Tyler explains. "But in the play, Rocky's pretty talkative."

Mill Avenue playgoers will also hear a verse of "Over at the Frankenstein Place" that was deleted from the film, and they'll get to appreciate a full vocal version of "Superheroes," which was reduced to instrumental form for the flick. But Tyler has wisely followed the movie's example by dropping "Once in a While," a rather lame love ballad performed by Brad in the original play. "That song has nothing to do with the story, and it brings the momentum to a standstill," Tyler says.

Also absent from the stage version is the movie's gratuitously grisly dining-room sequence, in which Frank proposes "a toast," an innocent line that now typically prompts a mass tossing of burnt toast at midnight screenings.

The play's differences are thus likely to disorient movie fans waiting for their "cues." "That opening wedding scene was added for the movie--it isn't in the play at all," says actress Susan St. John, who plays Janet in the MAT version. "So they won't really find a place to throw rice." Barely clad for the photo shoot in a white cotton brassiere and half slip, St. John looks like she's just stepped out of an old lingerie ad: "I dreamed I took the stage in my Maidenform bra."

Even more skimpily attired as Brad--and evoking parallel visions of Jim Palmer's racy Jockey shorts commercials--MAT regular Gene Ganssle (Tomfoolery, Bigfoot Stole My Wife) also voices his concern about dodging the possible missiles of crazed film groupies. But he'll be prepared if spectators yell aloud. "I've got everybody at my work calling me `asshole' [the favored nickname for Brad at film screenings] just in case."

Even so, the Mill Avenue gang probably won't breathe easy until they get a few performances under their garter belts. "There's not much we can do except carry on if someone in the audience shouts something," Tyler admits, "but I doubt if it could possibly turn into anything like the movie. The first time I saw it in a theatre, the die-hard fans screamed all the way through. I couldn't hear the jokes--or any of the dialogue, for that matter. It was very frustrating."

To prepare, Tyler and Miles located and studied a copy-of-a-copy of a videotaped screening of the movie that came complete with audience sounds (and curiously, Japanese subtitles), and they perused a fully annotated fan booklet that detailed the entire "second script" of de rigueur audience responses to each on-screen action and utterance.

"We considered printing a few of the still-workable ones in the program, but I think we've ruled that out," Miles says. Better to let sleeping dogs lie, cast members agree, none eager to have his concentration shattered by a mouthy spectator. Nevertheless, they ended up compromising by interpolating "six or eight" of the funniest response lines into the dialogue.

Valley actor-singer Curt Anthon, whose gutsy performance as the depraved, cross-dressing intergalactic scientist Frank N. Furter almost single-handedly salvaged an otherwise unfortunate outdoor staging of The Rocky Horror Show at the Mesa Amphitheatre in December of 1987, reprises his flamboyant role at Mill Avenue.

David Katz, who starred in recent productions of Big River and Hair at Phoenix Little Theatre, plays the eerie butler Riff Raff; Ellen Benton of Tomfoolery fame is groupie Columbia; and Nick Nichols (recently of MAT's Bigfoot and Endgame) narrates. Also in the cast are Wendi Green as Magenta the maid, Joe Arnold as muscle-stud Rocky, and Bert Emmett as both prepunk juvenile delinquent Eddie and his kindly, wheelchair-bound uncle, Dr. Everett Scott.

Like the early stage versions, MAT's production will encompass the entire theatre, with entrances and exits occurring in and all around the audience. "We've also lined up some rather explosive surprise special effects," Tyler teases.

Sounds great. Now, if only the audience will behave itself.

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Robert X. Planet