The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again
In 2005, a film adaptation of the musical Rent hit the theaters. Something that stood out to me was the staging of the song "Over the Moon," performed by Idina Menzel's character, Maureen. In the stage musical, it's a pretentious but effective protest art piece that both exemplified the era's subversive culture while also parodying its sillier aspects. And make no mistake, it is silly: Maureen wildly bobs her head up and down like an 80's hair metal frontman while shouting staccato GOT TO GOT TO GOT TOs, ending the performance with a series of moos that she forces the audience, both real and within the show, to imitate. The scene acts as one of the major turning points of the production, and a welcome moment of comic relief in an otherwise heavy show. But the character of Maureen is deadly serious about this performance. It's ok for us to laugh, but it's not funny to her. When Maureen performs this scene in the theatrical productions, she's alone on stage. No other character is there to react. The audience laughs because what's happening is funny, and there's no laugh track to egg them on. But in the film version, we see Maureen's performance and we see her actual audience's reaction. Now the characters are laughing. It's a jarring scene: instead of being part of the joke, we feel like we're voyeurs on someone else's good time. The personal connection that the theatrical scene established is severed on the big screen.
This was one of the many thoughts that popped into my head while watching last night's debut of Fox's Rocky Horror tribute, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again. At about three completely random moments, the "audience" watching the movie shouts dialogue at the screen or throws props around in an attempt to imitate the rituals of a Rocky Horror live-viewing. And you don't feel it at all. When you're there in the moment, it's perfectly natural to enjoy the festivities. But watching other people do it, (mechanically, rehearsed, and unnaturally) it feels like we're watching somebody else's in-joke that we're not a part of.
I feel that this is the underlying issue with RHPS:LDtTWA. The cast is clearly having a ball performing, but the fun doesn't translate to the viewers. Maybe because it's being watched during a prime-time slot on a major network alongside commercial breaks. On a weeknight. With only one other person and a disinterested dog. Rocky Horror is a fun film to watch on its own, or even with a group of friends, but there is no better experience than watching it on a big screen with a group of dedicated fans, or seeing a live performance. We can't expect this TV homage to come close to that burlesque-like atmosphere, but now it seems tone-deaf.
One of the issues is that despite taking the script and music verbatim, it's somehow cleaner. LDtTWA is polished, pretty, colorful, and removes that sense of grit and darkness that helped establish the black-and-white science fiction film ambiance. The original had color, of course, but the original was also purposefully scandalous, and yet here everything seems tame, even boring. But as the newest Nobel laureate famously said, the times they are a-changin', and that's never more obvious than when a show as famously risqué as RHPS seems appropriate for an episode of Glee. Like, OMG, they have two boys kissing at one point! GASP! For the majority of older fans familiar with the movie, and the new younger fans who may just be learning about it, its topics are not as shocking as it was "back in the day."
(As an aside, can I say how great it is to live in a world where I can say a movie with a traipsing transgendered transvestite and two dudes kissing is nearly blasé? Progress!)
Speaking of Glee, the entire production had a karaoke-style quality to it, like what you'd find on American Idol or The Voice. The singer's voices are perfect for modern-day pop (and I swear I heard some country-pop twang in there), with the same trills and beats and sounds that you'd expect from a Top 40 station. Even the harmonizing from the "audience" sounds canned, worked over to make the pitch perfect while ignoring the spirit of the piece. What was truly unforgivable was how awful the lip-syncing was. It's clear from the moment that the show beings that the music was being played over the action, and most of the actors and actresses do little to make it seem like they're actually singing. At least give the illusion of live singing! Combine this with silly directing choices and the whole thing looks incredibly amateurish.
The cast is talented, but only in the sense that we're watching actors put on their best Tim Curry/Barry Bostwick/Susan Sarandon/Meat Loaf impressions. Nobody tries to make the part their own. Laverne Cox, who struts in with a commanding presence and a unique voice, tries incredibly hard (and unsuccessfully) to imitate Tim Curry's vocal mannerisms. I absolutely loathed her introduction in "Sweet Transvestite," and it had nothing to do with her. The musical transition and staging did very little to initially hide her or accentuate the absolute shock of seeing Frank-N-Furter for the first time. I felt the direction did little to exemplify what should have been Cox's grand entrance, especially with the fantastic costuming choices. Her energy during the musical numbers is laudable, but her dialogue delivery is awkward, as if she knows she's there to be the center of attention, but isn't sure what to do with it once she has it. Not all of the songs match with her vocal range, but I have to say she did an excellent rendition of the ending songs, especially "Don't Dream It, Be It" and "I'm Going Home."
Victoria Justice as Janet Weiss and Ryan McCartan as Brad Majors were OK, but there performances didn't come off as natural as the others. Brad and Janet are supposed to be awkward stick-in-the-mud prudes, and even as parodies, Susan Surandon and Barry Bostwick sold their roles. These two make it painfully obvious that they're (arm-dramatically-in-the-air) Acting! They both seem much more natural when they're singing, and the staging of "Dammit Janet" is one of the better parts of the show. I have no idea what Reeve Carney and Christina Milan were doing as Riff-Raff and Magenta, but they worked well together. Milan switched in and out of random accents, and Carney's Riff Raff imitation didn't fully gel with his rocker voice and impressive movements. Ben Vereen's Dr. Scott was just odd, with some awful dialogue delivery. Also, I don't know why they told Ivy Levan to act as bored and bland as possible. She opens up the entire movie with "Science Fiction Double Feature," and she barely even tries to look like she's singing or enjoying herself.
The stand-out performances for me were Annaleigh Ashford, Adam Lambert, and Staz Nair as Columbia, Eddie, and Rocky. I appreciated Ashford's turn as Columbia, and while I didn't like some of the choices she made, it at least felt as if she were trying to make the part her own while still acknowledging the original role. Adam Lambert was a surprisingly fitting choice for Eddie, and the face his corpse makes during the big reveal is hysterical. Staz Nair does a decent job of standing there and looking pretty, while also doing some pretty fun "just born" monster walking, mixed with jumping around the set. Also, god damn that man is cut. Everyone in this cast is super pretty and shiny, but dancing around in glittering gold boxer shorts must be super intimidating.
Finally, there's the inclusion of Tim Curry. The legend himself had suffered a stroke in 2012 and was not often seen in the limelight after that, and even though we don't see him walking around or dancing the Time Warp, it's reassuring to see him in good enough humor and health to perform and sing a bit. I was legitimately happy to see him there.
If you can't tell by now, I felt that this tribute was a disaster. The original Rocky Horror is an objectively bad movie, but it's a movie that knows what it is a revels in it. Let's Do the Time Warp Again is just bad. It's poorly directed, paced, performed, and inexcusably boring. I've seen local and community theater productions of this show and had the privilege of seeing it on Broadway in 2004 (with Dick Cavett, Tom Hewitt, and Joan Jett), and even if it's not done professionally, the show is always performed with heart. This performance lacks that heart, and it feels like a TV executive hand-picked actors that would appeal to some demographic checklist. I give it a few points for some interesting choices here and there, and because the actors at least seem to be enjoying themselves, but if I want my Rocky Horror fix then I'm not going to revisit this castle ever again.