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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Rocky Horror Show’

“Rocky” still rocks.

Daniel Chavez Jr. does it again — and then some — with his smart, tart revival of Artists’ Repertory Theater’s “The Rocky Horror Show” at the Severance Theatre. With a production design a couple of notches higher up on the sophistication ladder from Chavez’s last go-around in 2009 with “Rocky,” an improved quality of overall vocals, and an energy level so elevated that if it were a pulse it’d be in heart-attack territory, this vibrant new production is a stellar experience.

Even before the official downbeat, the enthusiasm in the theater is palpable. Various “Phantoms” — the show’s hard-working ensemble — cavort in the Severance Theatre space, dancing and singing, enticing audience members into the mix. By the time the spiffy band (a ragin’ Nate Butler, Tim Pugsley, John Shafer, Rick Wood and Tweed Jefferson) kick things off with “Science Fiction Double Feature,” the stage is set for a vigorously fun “Rocky” experience.

My only big reservation after Friday’s opening-night performance, was alas, something I often am concerned about in the Severance space: the sound. There has to be some way to tone the volume of the percussion down. This may be a rock ‘n’ roll show, yes, but it’s also a musical, and you can’t drown out the lyrics of some songs (and even some of the other instruments) without things sounding like mush.

Still, one major thing “The Rocky Horror Show” has going for it is that most people are familiar with the storyline and don’t necessarily need to follow every nuance of “Hot Patootie,” for example. And the cast is so highly enthused that even when the individual vocals get swamped, the energy level saves the day.

Chavez, who directs and choreographs the show and designed the costumes — and plays the pivotal role of mad scientist Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter — knows “Rocky Horror” so well that nearly every moment plays out with the crispness of someone who knows every square centimeter of the material. Sometimes it’s the smallest details that have the most impact. During “The Time Warp,” for example, my eye was caught, for no particular reason, by three hilarious moments, all involving Phantoms: Hayley Galbraith pawing at her face; Chris Campbell attempting a near version of the splits; Isaac Ellis dragging an audience member onto the floor and bumping and grinding with her. I’m sure I’d see equally amusing things on a second viewing. It’s that texture and depth that somehow resonates in this production — all in a show so silly that you’d have to be seriously depressed not to crack a grin.

I love the new costumes, which Chavez envisions as a “steam punk” aesthetic. From the gorgeous aqua-and-blue fringed flapper look of a tap-dancing Columbia (a wonderful Chelsea Harper) to the vinyl pink and black top (looking like a cross between a letterman jacket and radiation suit) worn by Dr. Scott (a hilarious Lilly Dale Murray), the costumes are brilliantly conceived. (If there were the equivalent of Tony awards in Fresno, by the way, I’d consider nominating one of Murray’s fingers — you can guess which one — which gets a crooked starring role of its own.)

Bryce Moser gives us commanding vocals and a brisk nerdiness as Brad, while Alexis Garriott rounds out the hapless couple with a charged, sexy performance as Janet. Katharine Dorian is a strong Magenta, and Brian Pucheu’s golden voice combines with surly precision as the hard-edged Riff Raff.

Javier Padilla doesn’t have a strong voice, but his characterization of Rocky — manufactured by Frank ‘N’ Furter to serve as his love slave — is a buffed-out scream. His gymnastic Rocky is at once enamored of and afraid of Frank ‘N’ Furter, but also a little disdainful, and Padilla’s take on the character really adds another texture to the show that I hadn’t seen before.

And then there’s Chavez himself, who inhabits his role with the crusty-haughty demeanor of privileged nobility. From his show-stopping “Sweet Transvestite” to his poignant “I’m Going Home,” Chavez creates a bizarre character whom you can’t help loathe but also root for at the same time.   At the same time, the production itself seems infused with Chavez’s singular vision (if only we could get the sound better balanced), and it just seems to be getting better as it ages. That’s what I call one impressive hot dog.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Rocky Horror Show’"

Josie camarillo says:

Wow that was an awsome review. It was a fantastic show right down to costumes.
Thank you.

Alexis Garriott says:

Donald, thank you so much for coming out and playing with us! I had a blast dancing The Time Warp with you! :) It has been so much fun to see this show grow and change over the years, and I feel very blessed to have been a part of the cast all 3 times. Daniel Chavez, Jr. is a genius and mastermind and I can’t fathom ever performing in the show without him. Thanks again for such a wonderful review! xoxo

Jared Oliveira says:

I just saw the performance last night and I thought it was incredible. I barely saw the Rocky Horror PICTURE Show for the first time a few years ago and saw my first theatre screening just a week ago at the Warnor’s, so this was the final step in truly becoming a Rocky fan. I still consider myself a “newbie” to the world of Rocky, so it was nice to see a performance that was a happy mixture of material for the die-hards and for even the causal fans. I’m still somewhere in between, but find myself falling in love with the story, concept, and overall experience more and more each time. Chavez’s production left me wanting to delve further into the Rocky world. I’ve never have watched a stage production and wanted to get up and join in myself as badly as I did last night. They have fun and encourage the audience participation and modernizing many aspects of the always charming original show while still staying true to the history of the show. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Chris Campbell says:

Donald, thank you for the great review and the constructive comments on the sound. Our band and sound team took them to heart and, from all the audience comments, have been successful in taming the drums–more fabric and sound baffles around the band and achieving a good balance–more tuning of the computer sound system processor to the room with audience. i hope you can make it back to enjoy the improvements. Of course, almost every aspect of the show has strengthened and grown over the 9 performances so far. we look forward to the final five this weekend and next.

Chris

Stephen says:

Finally saw it last night.

Before I went, I was kinda thinking “really? they’re going to milk this show again?” but I was resoundly spanked(!) by the amazing energy, talent and new infusions of, well, stuff they put into this show.

Hey, Rocky can’t sing a lick, the sound was putridly gawdawful, and I had the best time EVER.

I love that Daniel Chavez mixed it up, casting new people (and even more talented than last time!) and providing me with more than my money’s worth.

Absolutely fantastic and WELL worth the cost. I know I’m posting late, but if folks haven’t seen this, they damn well should.

(side note: I don’t know who she was, but the lady in the front row who somehow managed to sleep through the entire show must’ve had long-lasting narcolepsy or sometime – but she made for even more fun as the phantoms sang right into her open-mouthed snoreface).

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