Review: San Jose Stage’s joyful ‘Rocky Horror’ embraces every ounce of cult classic camp

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Dr. Frank ‘n’ Furter (Keith Pinto) welcomes two young, innocent lovers into his castle in “The Rocky Horror Show” at San Jose Stage Company. (Dave Lepori photo)

For those who know very little about “The Rocky Horror Show,” and there are certainly some virgins out there who have yet to consummate with the show’s charms, it’s a little tricky to explain. As a matter of fact, my simple explanation of the plot via text to a potential plus one was met with the following pleasant denial:

“Umm, yeah, I think I’ll pass on this one.”

What makes the San Jose Stage’s stellar production of Richard O’Brien’s “The Rocky Horror Show” so much fun, directed with precise madness from associate artistic director Allison F. Rich, is that it knows exactly what it is and does everything possible to squeeze out every quirky charm it possesses.

So here’s the basic explanation – Brad Majors (a delightful, assholian performance from Parker Harris) and his girlfriend Janet Weiss (charming and skilled Ashley Garlick) have just left the wedding of his best friend Ralph and Ralph’s new wife Betty. Brad, overcome with all things lovey and dovey, has decided it’s time to pop the big question, which Janet gleefully answers in the affirmative. Yet, as they attempt to return home, they get caught in a massive storm which causes a flat tire, forcing them to knock on the castle door of sweet transvestite Dr. Frank ‘n’ Furter (super sharp Keith Pinto), who allows them in to use the phone.

While in the castle, the mad doctor invites the virginal couple to his laboratory, where it is revealed he is building himself a muscle-bound boy to play with, a boy he names “Rocky Horror” (A very fit Matthew Kropschot). Rocky is in great shape, might have a seven or eight pack (lots of packs to count), and begins to find plenty of uses for his seven-hour old, very virile libido, when he’s not freaking out about his unnerving circumstances.

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Janet Weiss (Ashley Garlick) and Brad Majors (Parker Harris) profess their love for each other. (Dave Lepori photo)

Ultimately, Dr. Frank ‘n’ Furter, in all of his blind ambition, gets too caught up in the extremities of his life, and is finally usurped of his power by Riff Raff (wild and untamed Sean Okuniewicz) and Columbia (a joyful turn by Jill E. Miller), with Magenta (always solid performer Rich) constantly lurking nearby.

The show, which was a stage play before it was the truly odd 1975 king of cult-classic films, plays well at San Jose Stage, a company that is at their best when they are producing the darkest of dark musicals. This wieldy send up of campy science fiction B-films that inundated drive-in movies in their heyday certainly has some things to say about sexual freedom and acceptance, a show produced the world over.

Ultimately, many a Rocky will be judged on the merits of its hits, and this production does not disappoint. Pinto does what all Franks should – come out with a stinging ferocity and continue to smooth out as the proceedings unfold. He is sharp during “Sweet Transvestite,” wonderfully comic in “Charles Atlas Song” and is devastatingly warm in “I’m Going Home,” where he is assisted with hauntingly delicious backup harmonies.

One aspect that makes the film and play so much fun is the witticisms that are shot throughout the show from the audience, a dynamic that certainly changes based on how many Rocky fans are present. Those fans are not hard to point out, and certainly not hard to hear, constantly yelling “asshole” and “slut,” or sliding in lots of current political commentary just before a banal line, providing a joyful, alternate context. Not all of the company led shouts hit their target, sometimes awkwardly landing, or not landing at all. Yet what works so well is this “Rocky Horror” embraces everything that makes the show special, even offering participation bags with things like water guns and 3D glasses that are used in specific moments.

The best Rocky casts are those who embrace working with this constantly shifting dynamic, and the sharp Edward Hightower as the Narrator did not disappoint, showcasing some precise diction and great presence. He was even taken for a loop in one moment by a particularly witty retort from the audience, causing a bit of suppressed laughter. There is also the strong and quick turn by Stage regular Will Springhorn, Jr as Eddie, who sings quite the rocker in “Hot Patootie.” Springhorn also makes a delightful return later in the show as the paraplegic Dr. Scott, searching for his now chopped up nephew Eddie. And Garlick did not miss in her rendition of “Touch-a Touch Me.”

Okuniewicz is dastardly as the grimy Riff-Raff, showcasing great chemistry with both Rich and Miller. And in the show’s denouement, all of the principals also come together sharply in one of the show’s oddest plot points, the very strange but entertaining floor show.

Other aspects of the production do a ton to round out the musical’s texture, including a kick ass band, with a wonderful dotting of ferocity by sax player Anthony Pickard. Robert Pickering’s scenic design which resembles the original RKO tower is also stellar, further enhanced by the projection designs of Dante Carballo. Add in some smart choreography from Tracey Freeman-Shaw, and the production team makes great use of the Stage’s specific, three-sided thrust space.

Whether “The Rocky Horror Show” is your cup of tea or not, it is terribly fun. And if you’re still not convinced, just give “Time Warp” a listen, and get up and dance. There’s a very good chance that once you get a taste of forbidden theatrical fruit, you just might be spaced out on sensation like you’re under sedation.

And you just might accept a plus one invitation next time.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

San Jose Stage Company presents “The Rocky Horror Show”
Book, music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien
The Word: A production that knows exactly what it is, showcasing the many catchy hits with flair and embracing all that is joyful about this counter-culture classic.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through Nov. 3rd
San Jose Stage Company
490 S. First Street, San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $28 – $72
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org

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