The Rocky Horror Show

Lyric Theatre, April 15

Amy Lehpamer, Stephen Mahy and Craig McLachlan. Photo: Brian Geach

Amy Lehpamer, Stephen Mahy and Craig McLachlan. Photo: Brian Geach

It was great when it all began….. The Rocky Horror Show started life as a small, gritty production whose outrageous parody of 1940s to 1970s B-grade sci-fi and horror films felt genuinely subversive, shocking and theatrically groundbreaking.

Australian director Jim Sharman and designer Brian Thomson had a great deal of input in helping Richard O’Brien (who wrote book, music and lyrics) create the aesthetic. They were also instrumental in expanding, developing and guiding the show from an experimental production Upstairs at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1973 to the Chelsea Classic Cinema on the Kings Road and from there to world, taking it to the screen too as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Over the years, the musical has become lighter, brighter and tamer: an anodyne parody of itself. These days it’s called Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show and so much of the edgy strangeness that made it a cult in the first place has been lost along the way.

While it is never going to shock in the way that it originally did, I’m sure there is a stripped-back, darker, dirtier, sexier production, closer to its roots, just longing to do the timewarp in Australia. Gale Edwards tried in 2008 with a (fairly glossy) production starring iOTA, but though it had a lot of going for it, it still didn’t manage to capture the danger of the original. (Apparently O’Brien and the British producers disliked some of what she had done and insisted on last minute changes).

For this 40th anniversary production, which originated as a UK tour, Christopher Luscombe directs one of the loudest, most colourful, glib productions yet. Gliding across the surface of the show, it’s a cartoon-like, bubblegum, party version verging on pantomime.

Hugh Durrant has designed a flexible set framed by rolls of film. The bottom right corner of the ruched front curtain is slightly torn, but that’s about it for any kind of grubbiness. Instead, the perky aesthetic is established right up front with a cartoon car for Brad and Janet and a cartoon castle, with comical Phantoms poking their heads out from behind it. There’s a fairly opulent interior for “the Frankenstein place” and some sci-fi looking gizmos for the science lab.

Sue Blane has reworked her original costumes to make them brighter, cleaner and sparklier, which work well within the world created.

The cast of Rocky Horror. Photo: Brian Geach

The cast of Rocky Horror. Photo: Brian Geach

Craig McLachlan is a forceful presence as Frank-N-Furter, a role for which he first donned the fishnets in 1992 – but not in the way Frank should be. He goes for broke, strutting his stuff to the max but all too often his shameless mugging goes a step too far.

He frequently breaks the fourth wall. Most Frank-N-Furthers interact with the audience but not to the degree that McLachlan does. So many of his winks, leers and suggestive gestures are overdone that it becomes hammy and his comical antics during the seduction of Brad and Janet are plain tacky.

Frank should be irresistibly sexy, crazed and dangerous. McLachlan’s Frank is none of these things. Instead he plays the role for laughs.

As the squeaky clean Brad and Janet, Amy Lehpamer and Stephen Mahy give nicely centred performances that help keep things real amid the frenzy. Lehpamer’s Janet evolves dramatically and vocally over the course of the show, to match the character’s growth, and both sing strongly.

Angelique Cassimatis is a spunky dynamo as Columbia, shining in the role. Jayde Westaby gets the show off to a great start as the usherette, Kristian Lavercombe brings a soaring rock voice to a rather manic Riff Raff, and Bert Newton as the Narrator is, well, Bert Newton.

The production has little heart or teeth, and if you didn’t know the story – such as it is – some of it could well be lost in the frenetic carry-on, with the ending coming somewhat out of nowhere. Nonetheless, the show has been selling out around the country and many in the Sydney opening night audience embraced as it as pure fun. It is fun  – but there is so much more to Rocky Horror than that.

The Rocky Horror Show plays at the Lyric Theatre until June 7. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 19

 

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Grease review

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo leads the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo leads the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Grease premiered in 1971, it was a show with attitude that took a rough, raunchy look back at 1950s teenagers and celebrated the music of the era. Over the years, particularly with the advent of the much-loved film, the edges have been knocked off it and it’s become much less gritty.

This latest incarnation, which originated in the UK with direction by David Gilmore and choreography by Arlene Phillips, could do with a bit more of that original grunt.

Restaged by Jason Capewell and Charlotte Bull, the production feels a tad too slick for its own good and somewhat heartless. It needs to trust the moments more and find the truth in them to connect you better with the characters. As it is, you don’t really care about them.

Lucy Maunder’s Rizzo is a notable exception. She really owns the role of the snarky, cynical leader of the Pink Ladies and her moving rendition of There Are Worse Things I Could Do is an emotional and musical highlight.

The production begins, somewhat strangely, with a sing-along of We Go Together led by Miss Lynch (Val Lehman) while the students of Rydell High enter via the auditorium. In my experience, sing-alongs are never terribly popular with audiences at the best of times – let alone at the top of a musical. Here it is forced and awkward.

After that slow start, much of Act I feels a bit flat. Though the cast performs energetically and the show rocks along (almost too frenetically at times) it all feels a bit hollow and the songs don’t really get things pumping the way you’re willing them to.

The production picks up with Greased Lightin’ led by Stephen Mahy as Kenickie but it’s not until Todd McKenney’s appearance as Teen Angel that the show hits its groove. Resplendent in a gleaming white suit studded with rhinestones, a silver waistcoat, silver boots and white blonde wig that makes him look like a cross between Liberace and a cheesy Elvis, it’s a literally glittering turn. It may be unashamedly over-the-top but McKenney exudes the charisma, star power and fun that the show needs at that point to really lift: definitely another production highlight.

Rob Mills and Gretel Scarlett are both likeable as Danny and Sandy. Mills’ voice has grown in recent years and he brings his winning, cheeky charm to the character, while Scarlett has a lovely voice, which soars with crystal clarity in Hopelessly Devoted to You. However, there’s little chemistry between them.

Other characters among the Rydell High students are less well delineated and get somewhat lost in the mix, particularly the boys, with a couple of songs getting hardly any response from the opening night audience.

Bert Newton may be a much-loved Australian celebrity and cast for that reason but he is far too old to play DJ Vince Fontaine – something that becomes wince-makingly obvious when he is called on to flirt with Marty (Karla Tonkich) – and his accent comes and goes. As Johnny Casino, Anthony Callea puts a contemporary pop spin on Born to Hand Jive instead of the original 1950s rhythm and blues rockabilly style – and something is lost.

The set is relatively modest though it does the job and the colourful costumes work well but the choreography could do with a sharper 1950s vibe and edge.

The story itself is so simple it doesn’t bear much analysis. The teenagers’ problems come and go very quickly, while the ending has always sent a somewhat mixed message with Sandy transforming herself into a bad girl to get her guy. But it’s always been that way and when everything is hitting the mark it doesn’t matter. Here, it is somewhat exposed.

Nonetheless, the songs are great and so familiar that the audience laps them up. (They certainly did in Brisbane where the show sold out before coming to Sydney). Promoted as “the number one party musical”, this production of Grease is fun but it’s hardly electrifyin’.

Grease plays at the Lyric Theatre until December 8 then at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, January 2 – February 9.

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 20