“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.