I have a long relationship with the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I'll try to keep short. Midnight shows as a teen in the mid-1980s were my first exposure to its live casts and hollering audience participation. Then as a manager at the Arcata Theatre in the 1990s, back in its cinema-only days, I watched hundreds of lingerie-clad moviegoers, mostly local high schoolers, teem in for periodic Rocky midnight showings and there I played the role of the nervous grownup afraid of them hurling rice or smuggled cocktails of Southern Comfort and Mountain Dew at the screen.
But they had the same love for the movie that I and millions shared, which is part of its enduring magic after four decades. Probably they — like me back when I was the one shouting at the screen — didn't know it had a life predating its celluloid existence: as The Rocky Horror Show, which debuted in London's West End in 1973. The brainchild of Richard O' Brien (who also played Riff Raff in the film version that followed), it clearly has roots on the stage, even if its legacy was in a film adaptation that developed a life of its own. But both are factors in what makes Ferndale Repertory Theatre's production under the able direction of Dillon Savage work so well. The fan base of the story is born of millions of midnight film showings, and this is an opportunity to watch the original at work.
It's difficult to describe The Rocky Horror Show to anyone not already familiar; it's basically a rowdy musical romp within the thin setup of a parody of 1940s and 1950s sci-fi and horror B-movies, with the glam-and-camp sensibility of the era in which O'Brien penned it. Powered as the story is by flashy musical numbers, wild costumes and sexual humor, it veers closer to more of a revue than a standard musical. And that's really enough analysis — Rocky as a story has always existed to be fun all around, from the stage to the audience. When loveable but hopelessly square, soon-to-wed Brad (Hadi Ajina) and Janet (Jenna Donahue) are thrust into spooky danger on a rainy night at a castle filled with mysterious misfits and mischief-makers, it's really just a jumping-off point. And Ferndale's staging reminds one just what great musical numbers the play has, and how they play even better live. "Sweet Transvestite," the iconic "Time Warp" and "I Can Make You a Man" come in close to straight succession in the first act. With all of those songs, and throughout the play, Rocky benefits from the great lead performance from Christopher Kehoe as mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter. Bringing some nuance to such a famously over-the-top role is a tall order but Kehoe has the stuff, along with a great set of pipes that works well with the best songs.
Ajina and Donahue make a fine pair of leads, the latter demonstrating a fine singing voice, knocking out Janet's show-stopping number, "Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me," with oomph. And tower of power Alexandria Blouin stays on a Ferndale roll following her turns in Boeing Boeing and Bat Boy as Magenta, which any Rocky acolyte knows is a plum role. Blouin is also the show's choreographer, doing a magnificent job with the near-constant dynamic motion of the cast and dancers.
I should add that on the evening I attended, Rocky's midnight movie legacy was well on display, as I'd hoped. Audience members were in costume; lines once shouted at a screen were shouted there, along with plenty of new ones. There are some other surprises of that nature, too, but that's up to you to venture to the theater to find out.
That may sound clique-y — something the movie's subculture has been accused of — but it never would've thrived all this time without people new to the experience.
A few years back, a friend of mine who grew up in Texarkana, Texas, told me that when he was in high school, midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show were how he realized there were people in his hometown who were not like everyone else. I grew up in a big city but I realized this was pretty close to what I felt at that age as well. I like to think in this era, Rocky, with its silly fun and its sly-but-pointed takes on sexual identity and gender stereotypes, has grown to something that can be enjoyed by all. Plus, you get to throw things at the stage — try doing that at Samuel Beckett's Eleutheria.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show plays at the Ferndale Repertory Theatre on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Oct. 29, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Oct. 9, 16, 23 and 30. For more information and a schedule of rotating narrators (Michael Fields and Mark Lovelace among them), call 786-5483 or visit www.frt.org.
The gender-swapped comedy The Odd Couple (Female Version) vacates its apartment at North Coast Repertory Theatre on Oct. 8. Call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.
Another update, The Taming of the Shrew(s), takes a different perspective on the love-hate story of Shakespeare's classic. See the war of words at Redwood Curtain Theatre from Oct. 27 through Nov. 19. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.