October 22, 2010, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian
Montana Actors’ Theatre is doing the Time Warp again … again.
For two nights this weekend, the local troupe of thespians will once again don fishnets for the return of “The Rocky Horror Show,” the risque rock ‘n’ roll musical comedy that proved a smashing success for the company last year over Halloween weekend, filling the 1,100-seat Wilma Theatre for four performances in two nights.
While encore productions often prove risky in the theatre world, this one should be a no-brainer. After all, “The Rocky Horror Show” owes its enduring popularity to repetition and familiarity as much as to its content.
“The audience participation is really what keeps it alive,” said Diane Johnston, a Missoula native and University of Idaho graduate who is directing this year’s production. “It’s important to put on a great production, of course; but it’s equally important to honor the traditions that made ‘Rocky Horror’ what it is today.”
Indeed, “The Rocky Horror Show” is as renowned for its elements of audience interaction as for its stage action. Over the years, audiences at staged productions and film screenings have evolved a complex script of their own, involving squirt guns, toilet paper and other props, as well as call-out responses to the actors.
If all that sounds like something from another world … it is, sort of.
Written in 1973, “The Rocky Horror Show” follows the adventures of Brad and Janet, young lovers who happen upon a mysterious castle occupied by an oddball assortment of characters led by Dr. Frank N. Furter, a self-described “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.”
The sex-crazed mad scientist manages to seduce both Brad and Janet – and then force them to dance in an orgiastic production number – before revealing that he is, in fact, a space alien. The lovers are eventually saved by Frank’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff Raff.
As plots go, it’s as thin and implausible as they come. But in a way, that was the point.
By setting racy burlesque and hokey sci-fi to a rock ‘n’ roll backbeat, “The Rocky Horror Show” defined the theatrical genre of campy musicals, leading not only to a long and successful initial run in London and on Broadway, but also to a filmed version, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
That film stands today as the longest-running theatrical release of all time, with some cinemas still showing it more than 30 years after its initial release.
So yeah, familiarity is at the core of the “Rocky Horror” cult.
At the same time, this year’s production should bring new energy to the script and score, thanks to the contributions of an almost entirely different group of directors and musicians, as well as several new actors on stage.
Heading the cast again this year is Reid Reimers, whose imposingly tall and deliciously dominant portrayal of Frank N. Furter set the tone for last year’s production, and Jeff Medley as the creepy-crawly Riff Raff. Other returning cast members include Nathan McTague as the narrator, and Brandi Christiaens and Camille Perry as Phantoms.
Beyond that, it’s an all-new cast and band of musicians led by Johnston, a local native who returns to the Missoula theatre scene for the first time since heading off to the University of Idaho, and musical director Alicia Bullock-Muth.
For her part, Johnston said the primary challenge with “Rocky Horror” is really no different than with any other musical.
“My focus is always on storytelling,” she said. “So even on a goofy script like this, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, my focus is creating real characters that people can identify with. Obviously there are a whole lot of things that make ‘Rocky Horror’ unique and that people expect every time they see it, but if we lose the focus on characters and storytelling, it can devolve into plain spectacle or something to look at but not feel. So this is about blending that.”
Johnston said she hopes that the combination of returning actors and new blood in this year’s production will help straddle the line between the familiar and the fresh.
“Part of making ‘Rocky Horror’ a tradition is making sure that every year, Missoula audiences get to see something different, that it grow and evolve,” said Johnston.