REVIEW: Come up to the Lab, Spartanburg Little Theatre’s ‘Rocky Horror’ is a Smash!

The “Antici……………Pation” is over! Spartanburg Little Theatre’s long-awaited Fringe Series opener “The Rocky Horror Show” touched down Friday night at the Chapman Cultural Center in a sweltering spectacle of artistry, and more life-altering fun than a Grateful Dead show.

“The Rocky Horror Show” is a surreal, space-age rock-and-roll experience presented with SLT’s customary professional-grade production values on a volunteer community theater budget. And while “Rocky Horror” may give the allusion of a well-heeled show, this musical has come off despite not having a single financial sponsor, because “no one would touch this show with a 10-foot-pole,” as Executive Artistic Director Jay Coffman so delicately expressed just before he was mobbed and run off the stage by the 10 Phantoms in the show’s ensemble, who looked like they just stepped out of MGM’s wardrobe shop, but in an alternate universe.

That’s because of the show’s mature content and risqué elements like scantily-clad actors in their undies, a bizarre storyline about occupants of interplanetary crafts, and of course, that cross-dressing alien Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter, better known as the “Sweet Transvestite” from Transsexual Transylvania, and played brilliantly here by Jonathan Kilpatrick. Oh, and it’s probably also because the show is known for its rowdy audiences that have semi-vulgar speaking roles and lots of silly props (supplied for a nominal fee in the lobby).

Inspired by 1970s glam rock and 1950s rock-and-roll and science-fiction B-movies, “The Rocky Horror Show” beckons controversial musicals like “Hair” and “Oh! Calcutta!” and the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” albeit with a cosmic Ziggy Stardust-in-fishnets twist. In today’s culture of RuPaul and Caitlyn Jenner, this production’s racy subject matter may not raise as many eyebrows as the original 1973 West End show by Richard O’Brien or the well-known cult-classic film starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Meat Loaf, that is now in its 40th year.

But a live “Rocky Horror” in Spartanburg? Really?

Actually, “The Rocky Horror Show” is not exactly new to the Upstate. Greenville’s alternative theatre company The Warehouse staged a highly-successful version a couple of years ago and is re-envisioning the show for its 2015-16 season opener in September. And Coffman himself once played Brad Majors in a USC-Spartanburg production years ago.

But a community theater mounting a production in our fair city is unprecedented. That’s why this edgy show is being presented in SLT’s new Fringe Series and marketed to a more eclectic audience on social media and in a radio campaign on 103.3, and not through the usual subscriber and mailing lists.

spartanburg little theatre rocky horror
Celia Blitzer as Columbia

Coffman directs this slick presentation and his team of artists – in particular production designer Clint Walker and costumer and make-up designer Will Luther – have conceived a fresh, stylized vision for this infectious tale of the young engaged couple Brad Majors and Janet Weiss (Brandon Gaunt and Anna Lee Altman) and their other-worldly encounter with Kilpatrick’s androgynous mad scientist.

The setting has been transported from the haunted castle in the film to a dilapidated 1920s two-story movie palace — loosely akin to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta  — with stately, aged red walls, ornate carvings and medallions, and a grand balcony and staircase. And the attention to detail is exquisite. Four Stilettos, Mr. Walker!

The Haunted Movie Palace Set

His set design is gorgeous and functional with elaborate arched woodwork upstairs and the lobby downstairs has arched marquees and doorways adorned with flashing strip-lighting and dominated by vintage posters of science-fiction movies of the 1950s like “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman,” “Forbidden Planet and “Godzilla.” And these panels all revolve in unison to double as sets for the good doctor’s space-age laboratory and secret passageways for characters to make their grand entrances and exits, including the doomed biker Eddie (Daniel Marlatt) who pops out of a vintage Coke vending machine.

But no one can make an entrance (or a departure) like Mr. Kilpatrick, whether it’s descending the grand staircase in a black fur coat and ostrich feather hat, ascending the same staircase right in the middle that infamous line “Antici………Pation” or gently rising out the orchestra pit to great revel for the “Floor Show.” His Frank ‘N’ Furter is part-Baby Jane Hudson and part-Divine a la “Pink Flamingos,” especially with the eye makeup. He plays the role with more camp than Curry in the original production, but he is just as unapologetic and salacious in his signature song “Sweet Transvestite” and extracts every ounce of humor from the script and the audience.

Kilpatrick sings lead in almost one-third of the songs and is no short of a dynamo with the jocularity of a seasoned drag queen and an equally compelling voice which he demonstrates in throngs in “I Can Make You A Man,” “Planet Schmanet-Wise Up Janet Wise” and his final, stirring swansong “I’m Going Home,” which provides the only inkling of sympathy for his otherwise evil character.

Luther’s concept for Frank ‘N’ Furter is a resplendent black and red corset with a red garter and Mary Jane heels with leather fringe, relaxed Shirley Temple curls with red highlights and red glittery eyeshadow. But his crowning achievement here has got to be Frank ‘N’ Furter’s red lab coat — a full-length red trench coat with a mesh strip around the calf area, much like an upside-down bee keeper’s hat, and multi-strand pearls.

Female Trouble

Kilpatrick gets frisky  in a key-lime chiffon peignoir with black fur trim (a nod to Divine’s Dawn Davenport in “Female Trouble”) and for the finale, Luther has designed a stunning diamond-encrusted silver corset with matching gauntlet gloves and a Cruella Deville wig.

As the engaged naïve couple, Gaunt and Altman are well-cast and exceptional in their roles even when “exposed” in their tighty whities and a very tasteful bra and slip, respectively. Whether they are courting each other in “Damn It Janet” or harmonizing in the beautiful and haunting “Over At The Frankenstein Place,” this power duo delivers as they navigate Frank ‘N’ Furter’s house of depravity.

Gaunt nails “Once In A While” in a green kimono while Altman shows off her comedic acting prowess and splendid soprano vibrato in my personal favorite, “Touch-a Touch-a Touch-a,” as she and the doctor’s lab creation, Rocky (a very handsome and talented Garrett Gibson in a gold lame onesie), experience ecstasy for the first time and want “More, More, More.” Gibson is especially hilarious in this scene and stays in his character’s state of starry-eyed bewilderment like a curious toddler throughout the story.

Oh, Rocky!

And his Charles Atlas (the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the 1950s) poses get thumbs up from the audience and does his iron-pumping of a seemingly 500-lb barbell with one hand, just one of prop mistress Pam Boone’s lovely creations. But his greatest moment is his post-birth solo in “The Sword of Damocles” as he is chased by Kilpatrick all the way through the third row in the audience. Yes, through the row, so if you are sitting on row E, be prepared for a meet and greet.

Taylor Randall Marlatt and Celia Blitzer are the Usherettes (and later the key roles of Magenta and Columbia), in adorable red vintage usher uniforms with cute hats and flashlights. They hang with the audience in character before the show  and sing the opening number, “Science Fiction Double Feature,” that sets up the story’s thematic origins in sci-fi flicks like “Flash Gordon,” “Tarantula” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Their version is beautiful and in perfect harmony, and even better than the 2001 Broadway cast recording.

Marlatt has a whopping, husky mezzo singing voice like Adele and wears Magenta’s customary French Maid outfit but with heavy Goth influences. Blitzer, as the heart-broken Columbia, has a squeaky high-pitch voice and wears a gold waitress uniform. She gives us some of the evening’s most delightful and precise vocals in her singing duel with Frank ‘N’ Furter when she breaks into an impressive soprano operatic warm up.

BJ Hollis gets the audience award for outstanding  performance as Riff-Raff, Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter’s second-in-command. His star is bright and he was adored by the crowd on opening night when he emerged during “Over At The Frankenstein Place” with his rich soulful voice and dressed like the von Trapp’s long-lost step-child with black leather mini-trousers and suspenders and a foot-high multi-colored Mohawk. And he and Magenta are stunning in Luther’s white space-age suits with a silver lame lining, platform knee-high boots, sunglasses and laser-guns.

Dr. Scott

Mark Stidham plays the story’s narrator and appears throughout the show, popping out of portals in the set. In addition to his rockin’ Eddie, Daniel Marlatt is the rival scientist Dr. Scott in a wheelchair and most convincing German accent (“Eddie’s Teddy”) and has a lot of fun with this character in the big burlesque “Floor Show” number when he removes the afghan on his lap to reveal fishnets and heels. He even does a few Rockette kicks to the audience’s delight.

The aforementioned Phantoms — the tuxedo-clad party guests in the movie — are a fearless mixed-gender coterie of contract players that puts the Village People to shame – a sailor, cowboy, can-can dancer, flapper, gladiator, Robin Hood, Cleopatra, etc. But each costume is infused with punk-rock elements.

While this group of experienced performers does spend a couple of scenes as observers on the second story of the set, much like the film’s party guests, this show puts great demands on the ensemble. There are several dance numbers like the fantastic “Time Warp,” but the Phantoms also provide choreographed movements (by first-time choreographer William Wilkins) in the background in duets and trios striking poses like sexy  wax statues And they have some fun spraying the audience with water pistols during the rain scene. Thank goodness we had those newspapers to cover our heads.

Moreover, the Phantoms become human props — a doorbell, a trellis for the wedding scene and most notably, as the car and all of its moving parts in the driving in the rain scene. In this most clever sequence, these guys and gals become spinning tires, headlights, a blown tire and even operate a handheld windshield wiper. And they provide lovely integral background vocals in “Over at The Frankenstein Place,” “I’m Going Home” and “Super Heroes.”

Long live the Phantoms: Tony Glass, Clint Walker, Ryan Barry, Mitchell Januchowski, Keith Shambaugh, Beverly Clowney, Brenna Ryan, Susan A. Sistare, Amanda Darchiville and Ashley Bingham.

Lighting designer Peter Lamson provides an assortment of moods from a festive light show with spinning sunburst projections in “Time Warp” to the bright illumination of the stage curtain for the “Floor Show” and many, many spotlight moments for the solos. And kudos to him for the splashes of color in the lab apparatus and the rows of Japanese lanterns that give the lab a real B-movie feel.

The Band

Musical director and conductor Reed Allison and the musicians are nestled behind a faux wall on the second floor but they are ambient-lit so we can see them from most of all the seats in the theater. The band is terrific from the first note in the overture and includes Allison and Al Shaver on keyboards, Barry McGinnis on saxophone, Shawn Allen on guitar, Josh Tennant on bass and Kevin Heuer on drums.

Connie McIntyre serves as head seamstress on this production with Keegan Nicoloff and Mina Perkins as costume assistants. Nicole Luther assisted with the many hair styles and Chandler Crawford designed the video used for the jumbo screen.

And if you don’t know how to Time Warp yet, don’t get you fishnets in a bind. Mr. Marlatt and the Phantoms give a demonstration before the show and there are plenty of opportunities to do those pelvic thrusts along with the cast.

The Callbacks

I was expecting a sedate 8 p.m. audience on opening night, but it was very lively. Audience participation was quite robust with confetti, playing cards, toilet paper and newspaper flying about from the balcony and quite a few people dressed in costumes. And some were participating in the show’s long tradition of audience callbacks. For example, every time Janet’s name is called, everyone yells “Slut!” And so on.

I sat near the back row mostly surrounded by older patrons and there were some skeptics and a few low-hanging jaws. Act two has a couple of “mature audience” moments that seemed to elicit a comment or two but everyone seemed to enjoy the show nonetheless.

At the midnight show, the audience was blissfully-controlled mayhem. Many were in costumes and the callbacks were consistent for two solid hours, with a number of heavy-duty fans that knew all of the more obscure callbacks too. And the cast really fed off that enthusiasm in the crowd. It is a fantastic experience somewhat like a Trekkie convention with the crew of the Enterprise in fishnet stockings and Mary Jane platform heels.

This presentation of “The Rocky Horror Show” is historic in its expansion of the boundaries of community theater for sure. And even though this show may dance near the line of decadence, it never actually crosses it. After all, it is just an allusion.

“The Rocky Horror Show” plays at the Chapman Cultural Center at 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 30 – Saturday, Aug. 1 at 8 p.m. with a midnight show on July 31.

Call the SLT Box Office at (864) 542-2787 or visit www.spartanburglittletheatre.com.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Click HERE FIRST for SLT’s GUIDE TO ROCKY HORROR because some things are NOT ALLOWED!
Click HERE for an UNOFFICIAL Audience Callback Guide.

Sandy Staggs, a Spartanburg native, is Drama Critic and Publisher of Carolina Curtain Call and has been a journalist and arts critic for 20 years with staff positions and/or articles in the San Francisco Examiner, Spartanburg Herald-Journal, San Francisco Bay Guardian, San Francisco Observer, Oakland Tribune, San Mateo County Times and more, as well as an essay in the Hub City Press book “Stars Fell on Spartanburg.”

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