Few pieces of theater better represent the culture’s shifting social mores than “The Rocky Horror Show.” What was seen as a risque cult curiosity upon its premiere in 1973 is now a beloved mainstream classic, thanks in large part to the 1975 film adaptation that still plays to sold-out midnight audiences around the country.
The film’s depiction of bold sexuality and gender non-conformity might not seem so controversial anymore – it was even recently remade for network television – but Spokane Civic Theatre’s upcoming production of Richard O’Brien’s original sci-fi musical is likely going to raise a few eyebrows.
“While the movie is great and iconic and lovely, I think it’s a little tame by today’s standards,” said the show’s director, Lance Babbitt. “We’re pushing the envelope as far as we can probably push it. You’ll still get the same wonderfully zany, funny story, but it’s as if it was being done on HBO. … I’m trying to take the sugar coating off the show a little bit.”
The story, a campy send-up of horror cliches, concerns the square couple Brad Majors (Shawn Michael Hunt) and Janet Weiss (Amber Fiedler), who get a flat tire during a rainstorm. They stumble to a nearby castle to call for a tow, but they’re waylaid by its offbeat denizens – “if the Island of Misfit Toys did a horror musical,” Babbitt said.
The castle is presided over by a lingerie-clad mad scientist named Dr. Frank N. Furter (Alexander Edmonds), a self-described “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.” Brad and Janet, intrigued by these strange characters, are soon stripped of both their clothes and their inhibitions as Frank reveals his deranged plans to build a muscle man in his underground laboratory.
O’Brien’s quirky musical was famously adapted for the screen as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which featured Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon in some of their earliest roles. The film initially flopped but found an ardent following and has been in continuous release since. Its theatrical forebear, however, isn’t as frequently seen.
“We’re going with a kind of glam, punk, techno quality to the show,” Babbitt said, noting that this is likely the first time “Rocky Horror” has been staged by a Spokane theater. “I never wanted to do a slavish reproduction of the movie. I thought that would fall into too many traps – ‘He doesn’t sound like Tim Curry,’ or, ‘He doesn’t sound like Richard O’Brien.’ We pay homage to it a few times, but there are no literal references to the movie at all.”
And if you’re curious about audience participation, which is a cornerstone of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” experience, Civic will be selling packages containing the necessary props to throw at the stage.
“When you come in, the cast members will kind of give you a quick etiquette lesson before the show,” Babbitt said. “It’s very interactive in that respect. We had a partial audience the other night, and it was so fun to hear them talk back a bit. But there’s no way of knowing how that’s going to go until we actually do it.”
Because of its built-in audience, it’s not much of a shock to learn that many of the showtimes for “Rocky Horror” are already sold out. But Babbitt says he’s been surprised by the wide age range of folks who he’s heard express enthusiasm for the show.
“I’ve had friends of my aunt’s, who are in their 70s, say they’re excited to see it. I have contemporaries who are excited to see it, and high school kids who are excited to see it,” Babbitt said. “I don’t know that too much theater does that, covers that broad of a spectrum. … If you take away the camp and the glitter, it’s an amazingly sweet story of inclusion. I think it hits a nerve with people.”
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