Of freak flags and time warps: The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show

Originally published by EncoreMichigan.com

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show is a bit of an artifact of its time, when queer culture and camp were avant garde, subversive, and downright frightening to most of America. Mike Pence notwithstanding, today we’ve seen such a mainstreaming of O’Brien’s core shock tactics (gender fluidity, B-movie tropes taken to their kinkiest extremes, gay panic, sophomoric raunch) that the show almost seems like a cuddly, family-friendly enterprise. I guess we can thank Andy Warhol, John Waters, Madonna, RuPaul, Logo TV, and Sacha Baron Cohen for that? When Drag Race – the likeliest heir to Rocky Horror’s legacy – is one of the most popular reality shows in America, you know we’ve turned a corner, even if the daily headlines, Fox News, and the comments section of any given Yahoo! news story lead us to believe otherwise. Hell, Fox themselves aired a (not very good) TV remake of Rocky Horror starring trans actress/activist Laverne Cox  … in response to Carrie Underwood playing Maria in NBC’s Sound of Music Live!?! Strange days indeed.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

Ferndale, Michigan’s The Ringwald gets all of this. This milieu is their stock-in-trade. In fact, I can practically feel their collective eyeballs roll as they read that opening paragraph. Consequently, it is assured that Ringwald will do something unique with the material, while honoring the nostalgia factor that keeps Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials alike coming back year-after-year to this show and its classic film adaptation. The film, of course, starred Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, and Susan Sarandon in career-launching roles with a million toast-strewn midnight-movie showings.

 

[Wallace, Harris, Gagnon, Jacokes – image by author]

Directed with aplomb by Brandy Joe Plambeck (also brilliantly pulling out all the stops as exposition- spouting character Dr. Scott), The Ringwald’s Rock Horror Show does not disappoint. Tied loosely to the bicentennial anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (I wondered why everyone was doing these kinds of shows in the middle of summer – well, I’m seeing this one), The Ringwald’s production is a damn party. Yes, O’Brien’s book reads like a series of MadLibs pages strung together and makes about as much sense. However, the songs are sublime, and they are beautifully delivered here – kudos to Jeremy St. Martin’s music direction. The bonkers characters are a scream for talented actors like Ringwald’s to play. No bit of scenery remains unchewed; no audience member unaccosted. And it’s divine.

 

Defying convention, Plambeck transplants the show from a rambling gothic castle into a seedy biker bar, covered in punk rock graffiti and serving (non-alcoholic) drinks to audience and cast members – with smart, solid, economic scenic design from Stephen Carpenter. It’s a genius and immersive move. Squeaky clean (or are they?) Brad and Janet – representing the dreams and aspirations of middle-America to live boring, Instagram-friendly lives – stumble into said bar from the rain to use the pay phone after their car dies. While there, Brad and Janet meet a sordid cast of characters, all of whom are easy-to-judge but hard-to-avoid and totally at home in this setting. What Plambeck’s approach loses in outright spooky weirdness, it makes up for in sheer Muppet-y anarchic charm.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

The bar is run by one Dr. Frank N. Furter who uses sex as a weapon AND a floor show. In a welcome bit of gender-blind casting, Suzan M. Jacokes takes on the role. Her acting style seems pneumatically engineered for an outsized, cartoonish part like this, and she doesn’t disappoint. While nuance may not be her forte, she has power, polish, volume, and command to spare. You can’t look away. I did miss some of the slithering insinuation we typically associate with the role, but Tim Curry’s gonzo performance will always cast a long shadow. Jacokes deserves plaudits for stomping it to the ground and making it uniquely her own. She’s like the caffeine-addled lovechild of Gloria Swanson and Rodney Dangerfield. She nails the anthemic “I’m Coming Home” number, with just the right hint of Liza/Judy-ish “little girl (boy?) lost” pathos.

 

[Wallace, Gagnon – image by author]

Matthew Wallace and Jordan Gagnon as Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, respectively, are an absolute delight, setting aside the faux innocence often brought to the roles and bringing a postmodern loopy assuredness that is fun to watch. Their love/hate dynamic in “Dammit Janet” and later “Super Heroes” is touching, thoughtful, and refreshingly believable, particularly in the midst of such a carnival-esque enterprise. Their characters benefit best from the updated locale. The hedonism of a late-night, dead-end watering hole on a stormy night (and with no vehicular escape) would indeed lead to some relationship topsy-turviness.

 

Brad and Janet arrive smack in the midst of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s experiments (in a bar?) to genetically engineer the perfect man and sexual plaything “Rocky.” Garett Michael Harris as Rocky turns in an eye-poppingly nimble performance that is more Iggy Pop than Tab Hunter. He’s terrific.

 

[Riedel, Bailey, Sulkey – image by author]

Janet takes up with Rocky; Frank takes up with Brad (and Janet). Brad and Janet’s former science professor Dr. Scott arrives in a wheelchair (and glittering pumps) to drop a whole sh*t-ton of backstory. Frank reveals that he and his fellow bar denizens are actually space aliens (!) who left their mission behind to get freaky with earthlings. Servants Riff Raff (effectively underplayed by Donny Riedel) and Magenta (Dyan Bailey – imbuing Magenta’s “over it” personality with her trademark Kathleen Turner-esque a$$-kickery) shoot up the bar with ray guns and demand a return to their home planet. Brad and Janet escape, sweetly acknowledging their love and their need for one another. Finis. Whew.

 

The ensemble work (Colleen Bielman, Ryan Kayla, Peggy Lee, Rebecca S. Mickle as “The Fantoms”) is exceptional, and the group numbers (“Time Warp,” “Floor Show”) really pop in The Ringwald’s tiny space. Efficient and effective choreography is provided by Molly Zaleski. Articulation in the group numbers sometimes gets muddled, but most of the audience knows these songs backwards and forwards so that can be forgiven. Austin Sulkey makes a fabulously exasperated/exasperating Columbia, whose love of delivery boy Eddie (a swaggering RJ Cach) ends in tragedy. Costuming on both Columbia and Eddie is great as they look like they just stepped off Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” video. Vince Kelley has done remarkable sartorial work here across the board, tying the updated setting’s aesthetic with the imagery we are accustomed to seeing in this show. Clever stuff.

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Peggy Lee (no, not that Peggy Lee) deserves a special shout out for her work as “Fantom Flo.” She hauntingly delivers the show’s opening and closing numbers (“Science Fiction Double Feature” and its reprise). Her voice is exquisite – clear and crisp and evocative.

Lee also embraces “biker chic” better than anyone else in the cast, save ursine narrator David Schoen, who greets every audience member at the door, brings you to your seat, may pull you up on stage, and is completely “Hell’s Angel” intimidating in a totally adorable way.

 

This is a production put together by people who clearly love this show. The stage manager Holly Garverick shouts out all of the expected audience participation lines from the back of the house, encouraging the audience to interact with the proceedings, a la those midnight movie house showings throughout the 70s and 80s. One thought: let’s all retire yelling “slut” whenever Janet’s name is mentioned onstage. It may be tradition, but, in these “I’m With Her”/#MeToo days, it feels all kinds of misogynistic wrong.

 

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Audience members are encouraged to purchase (for a nominal fee) a bag of props (playing cards, rubber gloves, party hats, bells, glow sticks, newspapers, kazoos, “Time Warp” dance instructions) to use at key moments during the show. Garverick may want to help with that a bit, as well, as the opening night audience didn’t seem terribly keen on using any of those goodies, save the newspapers.

 

On August 4, The Ringwald will perform the show in a special midnight performance, again to evoke those high school years when people convinced their parents it would be ok for them to go take in a showing at the witching hour.

 

[Riedel – image source: The Ringwald]

Why has Rocky Horror been such a success all these years? I often wonder. However, The Ringwald’s production reminds us that, while the show may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning material, it champions underdogs and misfits, encourages all of us to let our freak flags fly, and envisions a world where inclusion of any and all is the ideal … in one really weird package. That is why. And that message is more important than ever before. Vive la difference.

 

The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show runs until August 6. For tickets, go to http://www.theringwald.com

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Lauren Crocker and Roy Boy

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Ain’t nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble.” It (2017)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like clowns. Never have. I trace it back to being unable to escape the ubiquitous, harlequin-gaze of shock-glam rock group KISS, leering from their album covers while my parents shopped for jazz and show tunes in record stores in the 70s. Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley are to blame for my aversion to Bozo and Ronald McDonald, apparently.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, by the time the first film adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling 1986 novel It rolled around, as a 1990 ABC-TV miniseries featuring a gleefully sadistic Tim Curry in the titular role as homicidal, otherworldly “Pennywise the Dancing Clown,” this high school senior had a stockpile of around 15  years of greasepaint-smeared nightmares with which to contend. The miniseries, which also featured a Love Boat-load of d-list celebrities like Richard Thomas, Annettee O’Toole, and that Venus Fly-Trap guy from WKRP in Cincinnati, is controversial among King fans who thought it deviated too much from the source text and diluted the book’s iconic scares to adhere to the rigors of commercial TV (nearly 30! years ago).

I don’t care. It was plenty unnerving to me. I admit that the miniseries’ second half, wherein Thomas and company step to the forefront as adult versions of the bullied “Losers Club” whom Pennywise (and others) tortured as children is a drag. However, the first half is a tour de force for Curry who needs nary a pixel of CGI to let his freakiest flag fly as an unearthly creature in clown form who quite literally feeds off the terror he engenders in the small-minded small town of Derry, Maine.

I wasn’t sure I needed to ever sit through this tale again. Why do that to myself, spending another two hours watching an unhinged clown steer headlong into the coulrophobia curve that had plagued me for years. Yet, like some kind of perverse immersion therapy, I found myself in a movie theatre watching Warner Brothers’ R-rated big-screen remake.

Director Andy Muschietti brings the same gothic Brothers Grimm fractured fairy tale approach he applied to the inferior Mamaand it works here, particularly given the familiarity many viewers will already have with the material. The film plays out more like a foul-mouthed Hansel and Gretel than Nightmare on Elm Street.

There is a picaresque quality to the narrative as It traces the summer-long adventures of seven young misfits, all marginalized in different ways under the weight of living in an insular community rotting to its core. The children all are haunted by debilitating fears, made manifest through a series of bogeymen and disturbing visions, and, over time, they come to realize there is a supernatural through-line (namely Pennywise) uniting them all. Bill, the ringleader of this poignant but scrappy band has lost his little brother the year prior in an unsolved kidnapping (we viewers know that Pennywise actually dragged the poor lad down a sewer drain from the troubling but elegantly framed prologue which opens the film), and Bill’s unrelenting drive to discover the truth of his sibling’s disappearance galvanizes the group, ultimately uniting them to vanquish Pennywise (or do they?).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I didn’t find the film particularly frightening or disturbing, which is either a sign of me aging out of my phobias or of a film that plays more like a spiritual sequel to The Goonies than a horror-fest. There are plenty of jump scares, jarring sound effects, and other conventions of the genre, and Bill Skarsgard (son of Stellan) does a perfectly fine job rendering a souped up Pennywise for the Millennial era, as informed by the apparitions of the Harry Potter films as anything in Stephen King’s canon, but none of it gave me the heebie jeebies.

In fact, Muschietti’s film plays out like an extended love letter to everything Spielberg. The potty-mouthed kids’ hard scrabble reality is played for laughs and poignancy. The late 80s setting (updated from the book’s 1950s era) allows for a number of film and pop culture references (a la Gremlins or Poltergeist) and a generally scruffier “lost generation” quality adds a heartbreaking layer of disposability to the Losers Club.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The kids themselves (Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer) are the film’s best special effect, with a refreshing authenticity, yearning, and lack of “cute child actor” pretense. They are fighting an uphill battle against an insidious enemy – the town in which they live – and anyone who has ever suffered the relentless, bullying pressures of provincialism will find themselves projecting their experiences onto these tender souls. Although, I admit I wearied after a point of the movie’s “look how crude and rude children are and isn’t it funny to hear them say really naughty things” shtick. That annoyed me from Spielberg in his trying-too-hard moments, and it still annoys me here.

The strongest Stephen King adaptations – The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Shining, Carrie, Misery, Dolores Claiborne – posit that the worst horrors are not supernatural at all but rather man’s inhumanity to man. That is also where It derives strength as a film. The adult residents of Derry all reflect the indifference and neglectfulness of a self-absorbed society that has turned on itself, an ourobouros eating its own tail. As one father hisses to his son in the film, “Ain’t nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble.” And clowns be damned, that is the worst horror of all.

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Yours truly with Jim and Rob before watching Stephen King’s It


Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.