Review: City Lights’ ‘Rocky Horror Show’ is campy fun

Rocky (Michael Wieland, center) is the new sexual boy-toy of Doctor Frank'n'Furter (Nathaniel Rothrock) in "The Rocky Horror Show" at City Lights in Downtown San Jose. (Photo by Mike Ko of SiliconValley Designs)

Rocky (Michael Wieland, center) is the new sexual boy-toy of Doctor Frank’n’Furter (Nathaniel Rothrock) in “The Rocky Horror Show” at City Lights in Downtown San Jose. (Photo by Mike Ko of SiliconValley Designs)

Richard O’Brien’s “The Rocky Horror Show” is not exactly high art. It’s actually more like musical theatre comfort food. That is, if that food was full of sex. Which is entirely possible – ever been to Hot Cookie?

City Lights Theatre Company’s production of the tale of sexual perversity and freedom, directed sharply by Kit Wilder and Lisa Mallette, does many good things, has a great energy, and boasts strong performances from its principal leads.

The familiar tale, shared by the narrator with a neck (Ken Boswell) focuses on young lovers Brad (Chase Campbell) and Janet (Alicia Gangi Malone) as they travel from a wedding. While traveling down a dark road on a stormy night, the couple gets a flat, but finds a castle and attempts to use a phone. They are met by the castle’s creepy doorman Riff-Raff (Matty Gregg) and his sister Magenta (Annie Donahey), who invite them in on a most historic night. Dr. Frank‘n’Furter (Nathaniel Rothrock) is about to debut his new creation, a muscular boy-toy named Rocky (Michael Weiland).

While the Doctor continues his sexual antics, Dr. Everett Von Scott (George S. Gemette) shows up at the castle to investigate the death of his nephew Eddie (Anthony Frederick Aranda). As things begin to slowly unravel for Frank’n’Furter, he orders a floor show for the castle’s inhabitants, while Brad and Janet come to terms with their new sexual liberation and the consequences of their actions.

The overall strength of the production lies in the energy it exudes. That energy is captured pretty quickly in the pre-show announcements, where Gregg told the audience twice that this is not a Sondheim night, and we would not be watching “Into the Fu***** Woods.” The announcement is somewhat critical in a show such as this one. This gives the actors a chance to see what kind of audience they would be working with for the evening, and this particular audience loved them some “elbow sex” (sorry, never tried it, couldn’t speak to its quality.)

Ron Gasparinetti’s set, a tribute to horrid B-movie films, is heavy on reds, and serves as the perfect backdrop for the disjointed, spirited and energetic fetish fest. The heart of the show is not so much the story, but the tunes, which are so ubiquitous, and are designed for everyone in mind. And not just because so much of the music is catchy, but because it is so well known. Whether it is “The Time Warp,” “Hot Patootie,” or “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me”, these songs are tunes you know, love and sing along to over and over again. The band, in the capable hands of music director Gus Kambeitz, brought a delicious, pulsating beat to the erotic rock-and-roll proceedings.

While vocally, not every performance was sharp, in terms of individual performances, both Campbell’s and Malone’s performances were connected nicely. They certainly played a convincing couple that must go from milquetoast squares to heat-seeking nymphoids in a short span of time. Vocally, their voices were inviting, sharing a gentle blending of harmonies that served them well. While “Dammit Janet” is a fun little ditty that was goofy and playful in their hands, their vocal maturity was on full display in the beautiful duet “Superheroes,” one of my favorite numbers from the show.

Rothrock delivered a wonderful vocal performance himself, playing the role with minimum inhibitions, enhanced by a very powerful sound boost, which greatly showcased the various textures in his vocal range. The character of Frank’n’Furter is extremely hard to cast, and even though Rothrock certainly was most comfortable vocally, it’s hard to make the same case physically. While the doctor is an erotic, sexually driven pansexual often defined by the way his body is moved, I didn’t always get the fluidity and effortless movement in this particular portrayal. Granted, the physicality of anyone would be difficult in those hyper high heels, but there was certainly something missing in the way the character should slide through space.

Other characters that functioned specifically to enhance the environment did so with great commitment. This was especially true of Gregg’s portrayal of Riff-Raff. From his first interaction with the audience to his last, Gregg embodied his character, much to the delight of the audience. In addition, Donahey’s quirky portrayal of Magenta (who also doubled nicely as the Usherette) was deliciously creepy, and the straight-laced portrayal of the narrator by Boswell was strong glue that moved the story forward.

“The Rocky Horror Show,” for all its campy schlock, is a show that has always been ahead of its time.  And despite this production’s shortcomings, it does exactly what it’s supposed to do – celebrate sexual freedom with a boundless energy while Time Warping in the aisles all the way through.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

City Light’s Theatre Company presents “The Rocky Horror Show”
Book, Music and Lyrics by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Kit Wilder and Lisa Mallette
The Word: Campy, erotic fun with all of Rocky’s classic tunes make for an enjoyable evening of comfort food theatre.
Stars: 3 out of 4
Through Aug. 31st
City Lights Theatre
529 South Second St.
San Jose, CA 95112
Tickets range from $19.95 to $34.95
For tickets call (408) 295-4200 or visit www.cltc.org

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