DeGeorge’s novel staging finds meaning and subtext in a cult classic
It’s always anxiety producing when a musical that is beloved and tweak it for modern audiences — even when the source material, while “classic” is not very good, as in the case of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. Director Vince DeGeorge, surrounded by an amazingly talented cast and crew, takes this American staple and finds a way to actually make it beyond watchable. In fact, it’s downright genius.
I’ve seen a lot of DeGeorge’s shows; he’s really great at several specific things. One of them is finding story-based ideas and details that no one else would think of and exploiting or accentuating them to their maximum potential. This is evident the moment you walk into the almost bare studio stage, but the single solitary prop and sound cue establish a very distinct setting for this particular production. Genius.
But Vince’s best attribute is his innate ability to find an emotional angle and allow the audience to feel something. I’ve seen “Rocky Horror” before; it is almost always directed for shock value. Comedy, raunch, and outrageousness are primarily the focus in most versions. In this CCM production, there’s a quieter, more intense angle. The show is still very funny. It’s still raunchy and outrageous. But who knew that The Rocky Horror Show could have heart — and maybe even a relevant social message?
In case you’ve never seen it, let’s recap: two young naive lovebirds nerds wind up at a scary, spooky castle owned by a seductive transsexual madman scientist space alien named Frank N Furter, who proceeds to expose all in their path (I assume Frank would use “they” pronouns) to a whole lot of sexual exploration and freedom. But it’s too much for the world to handle (back in the 70s, for sure, and unfortunately in 2019 this is still true) so it all ends tragically.
DeGeorge sets up the stage in the round, which he then manages with the use of closable drapes to allow for scene changes and surprise entrances. The best moment is when the curtains open quickly to introduce us to Ethan Zeph’s “Frank.” Zeph, a junior in the musical theatre program, is an unusual choice for the character. He’s not as tall as you’d usually see. He’s softer, more feminine, like a real person instead of an outrageous, unrealistic character. It’s refreshing and different and I was mesmerized by his stage presence. He’s supported by a phenomenal group of featured players including Erich Schleck (with soaring vocals and haunting presence as “Riff Raff”), a delightfully weird Sofie Flores (“Magenta,”) a table-top-tap-dancing Delaney Guyer (“Columbia”) who’s tap routine was choreographed by the superb Katie Johannigman, the perfectly cast (and proportioned) Andrew Alstat (“Rocky”), the gorgeous voiced Mikayla Renfrow (“Janet”), the over-the-top in all the best ways Hank Von Konitz (“Eddie/Dr. Scott”), and a hilariously heartfelt Jake Waford (“Brad”). John Harrison narrates the show; he’s one of the founders of The CCM Harmony Fund. The ensemble, which includes Britta Cowan, Jack Johnson, Christian Kidd, Tyler Martin, Sasha Spitz, Brandon Schumacker, Veronica Stern, and Jordyn Walker, all support the show well with their blended voices and character work. All the vocals were up to CCM levels of excellence.
So is the tech. Steve Goers directs the music and vocals, and his band accompanies the blended vocals well. Michael E. Nardella’s lighting design is creepy, scary, and effective. Hannah Werle’s sound design wraps around the theatre in immersive fashion, though I do wish the band was mixed a little differently. Live music shouldn’t sound like it’s in the next room. Kelly Yurko finds the right tone for all the wigs and makeup and student costume designer Maddie Kevelson modernizes the show while keeping it true to its roots. Joshua E. Gallagher has a mostly bare set, which transforms as necessary with useful and inventive props (by Payton Epperson) including a brilliantly effective door. If you look at the program, you’ll see that this production not only utilized k. Jenny Jones as a fight choreographer, but also an intimacy coordinator. There are some difficult to stage sex scenes and some potential problems around the idea of “consent” in this script; I appreciate that CCM takes these issues seriously. I also love that Em Joy, a community activist and educator, participated in providing education around the issues these characters wrestle with. (Em Joy will play the part of narrator at the November 9th performances instead of Harrison, who has previous commitments.) DeGeorge also choreographs the show; his dance numbers always are tone-perfect with the overall production and keeps the pace moving at breakneck speed. With a runtime of just under 90 minutes, the action moves briskly and it’s a skill not possessed by every director.
When CCM put tickets on sale for The Rocky Horror show, they added a second weekend almost immediately because the demand was great. I’m not sure if those ferociously loyal and passionate Rocky Horror audiences were expecting this revolutionary take on the show . . . but it’s brilliant in absolutely every way.
THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW runs through next weekend at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. If any tickets are available, they’ll be listed here. If you can get one, go see it. It really Is not to be missed.
Vincent DeGeorge, Director/Choreographer
Stephen Goers, Musical Director
Joshua E. Gallagher*, scenic designer
Maddie Kevelson*, costume designer
Michael E. Nardella*, lighting designer
Hannah Werle*, sound designer
Kelly Yurko, wig & make-up designer
Abby Sauer*, production stage manager
Chris Jacobs*, associate sound designer
Payton Epperson*, prop master
K. Jenny Jones, fight/intimacy director
Sammi Grant*, dialect coach
Elle Zambarano*, assistant director
Em Joy, community educator
* CCM Student
Jake Waford as Brad
Mikayla Renfrow as Janet
John Harrison as Narrator
Erich Schleck as Riff-Raff
Sofie Flores as Magenta
Delaney Guyer as Columbia
Ethan Zeph as Frank ’N’ Furter
Joseph (Hank) Von Kolnitz as Eddie/ Dr. Scott
Britta Cowan, Jack Johnson, Christian Kidd, Tyler Martin, Sasha Spitz, Brandon Schumacker, Veronica Stern, Jordyn Walker as Phantoms
Em Joy as Narrator Cover
Originally published at http://new.thesappycritic.com on November 3, 2019.