Isn't it curious that the two movie musicals that have inspired audience-participation cults are "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "The Sound of Music"? One has nuns, lederhosen, sweet kids and edelweiss. The other has transvestite Transylvanians, fishnet tights, sex and violence. Yet audiences have reacted in the same way to each of them, turning both into high-camp sing-along rituals. This suggests either that "The Sound of Music" is much filthier than even Sigmund Freud could have imagined. Or - and this is the shocking truth - that "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is really rather sweet and innocent. Even when it was first staged in London in 1973 as "The Rocky Horror Show," Richard O'Brien's delightfully lurid musical was already rather nostalgic. The story, in which two archetypal middle-American virgins are introduced to the joys of bisexual lust by some madly perverted aliens, may have been mildly disturbing. But it comes wrapped up in a cozy celebration of the lost world of 1950s B-movies. The real thrill is not the prospect of kinky sex but the warm memories of Frankenstein, Dracula and a thousand reels of anonymous sci-fi schlock. The all-purpose degeneracy of Frank N. Furter and his minions is as safely scary as a Halloween ghoul. A quarter of a century on, there is a whole other layer of nostalgia for a time before AIDS and the dark side of the sexual revolution. Now, in Christopher Ashley's energetic new production, "Rocky Horror" is still a lot of fun. But it's about as decadent as low-fat cottage cheese. Ashley, rightly, doesn't even pretend that the original musical can stand alone. His staging is essentially a live version, not of the original show, but of the jolly audience-participation event that the movie version has become. Designer David Rockwell sets the tone by creating in the Circle in the Square theater a wonderfully witty version of a long-lost movie palace. Adding to the cinematic feel, Ashley makes clever and hilarious use of video from the moment at the start when the innocents abroad, Brad and Janet, literally step out of the silver screen. And, just to be sure, Ashley even adds an "audience" of actors to lead us in the ritual of catcalls, gestures and actions that have made attending the movie oddly like going to church. The production aims, in others words, to let the audience make a show of itself. And this makes sense because, if you just sit back and watch, "Rocky Horror" does show its age. O'Brien's score has lost its hard-rock edge with the passage of time and sounds, by comparison with today's heavy metal, rather tame. There are, in any case, really only three good songs - "The Time Warp," "Sweet Transvestite" and "I'm Going Home." And the ragged second act still feels like it was written to a fast-approaching deadline. Ashley's superbly accomplished cast, however, is well able to carry the show through its rough patches. As the narrator, the droll Dick Cavett not only adds a further touch of nostalgia but also draws the audience into a conspiracy of fun. Alice Ripley as Janet stands out not just for her delicious shuffle between coyness and lust but also for the surprisingly seamless way in which she adapts her classically pure voice to the rude rhythms of the score. But there are also suitably garish performances from Jarrod Emick as Brad, Raul Esparza as Riff Raff, Lea DeLaria as Dr. Scott and Tom Hewitt as Frank N. Furter. Mostly, though, this is a game to be played rather than watched. You will get out of it what you bring to it. So bring a flashlight, confetti, some playing cards and fond memories of a more innocent time. Leave behind any sense of decorum. And enjoy some good, wholesome filth.
Did success spoil Rock Hunter? I forget. But success has not dealt too kindly with Richard O'Brien's cult spoof musical "The Rocky Horror Show" which last night re-emerged on Broadway, more elaborate than ever, at Circle in the Square.
This is a show that honestly demands two different approaches - the approach of a civilian, but civil theatergoer, and the approach of a Rockie, one of that fervent tribe of audience participants who used to sing along and dress up at midnight shows of the movie version, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," at the old Waverly Cinema.
For the first group, assuredly the wider swath of Broadway theatergoers, watching the pristinely innocent antics of the camp followers, with their flashlights, their feather boas and confetti, may be rather more entertaining than the show itself.
So what is "The Rocky Horror Show"? It's difficult to describe, But then so is seasickness. But let's try.
It is a burlesque pastiche of a sci-fi horror flick of the '50s and '60s, spiced up with a little sexual innuendo, cross-dressing, drug abuse and somewhat crumbling rock music.
Think of the androgyny of Alice Cooper and early David Bowie meeting Peter Cushing and Hammer Films.
A too-good-to be-true, betrothed and virginal all-American couple, Janet Weiss (Alice Ripley) and Brad Majors (Jarrod Emick), find their car broken down in a storm and are forced to take refuge in a castle which probably gave gothic its bad name.
The owner of the castle, is a Dr. Frankenstein-like transsexual from Transylvania, with a baritone voice and silk stockings climbing up gorgeous gams, calling himself, herself, itself, Frank 'N' Furter (Tom Hewitt).
Furter has a sinister butler, Riff Raff (Raul Esparza), who has a sinister sister, Magenta (Daphne Rubin-Vega).
There's also Columbia (Joan Jett), who has a lover, Eddie (Lea DeLaria), she apparently shares with Furter, who has created a monster, Rocky (Sebastian LaCause).
Some of these come from outer space, but you get the idea ... and in any case the details are sonorously offered by the Vincent Price-style narrator (Dick Cavett).
The show, which has book, music and lyrics by O'Brien, started in 1973 at London's Royal Court Theater, moving after a few months, to a wonderfully sleazy and dilapidated cinema in King's Road, where I first saw it. It was then bizarre, sweet and oddly charming.
Arriving on Broadway two years later in an ill-advised and pointless cabaret setting, it looked weird, preposterous and distinctly charmless, and went belly-up after 45 performances.
But the movie, made the same year, managed to recapture something of show's original ditsy naivete, and developed its own dedicated following.
The current over-produced Broadway offering, directed by Christopher Ashley, clearly believes that nothing succeeds like excess and has piled encrustation upon ornamentation. For the unconverted, such as myself, it is all too much.
In fairness though, I must admit most of the performances are admirable. Hewitt as Frank 'N' Furter, while lacking the original Tim Curry's wicked charisma, is gorgeously outrageous; Ripley and Emick are adorable as the none-too-reluctant lovers; and all the others, even the game, if frazzled-looking Cavett, score nicely.
Yet unless you are a fan already, I suspect most will find it a damn silly way to spend an evening or a dollar.
The toilet paper was cascading at a recent preview of ''The Rocky Horror Show,'' hurled onto the stage by members of the audience, and the musical's cross-dressing star was sounding more like a substitute schoolteacher than the mad scientist he portrays.
''Let's just throw it at each other, shall we?'' Tom Hewitt growled to the back of the house. ''We're live!''
Does anyone want to debate that last assertion? True, those are real flesh-and-blood actors performing at the Circle in the Square Theater, a fascinatingly motley crew that includes a rock star (Joan Jett), young Broadway veterans (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Lea DeLaria, Alice Ripley and Jarrod Emmick) and the sui generis Dick Cavett.
But for many of those attending the revival of ''The Rocky Horror Show,'' which opened officially last night under Christopher Ashley's direction, these three-dimensional creatures are merely effigies, like the plastic ''Star Wars'' action figures that accompany fast-food purchases, stand-ins meant to recall the real thing.
The real thing, of course, is on celluloid: the cast of characters who live on and on in movie houses around the world in midnight showings of ''The Rocky Horror Picture Show.'' That's the 1975 cult film that was made from Richard O'Brien's cult stage musical that slayed 'em in London and got slayed on Broadway, where it has now been revived in a 25th-anniversary production.
But back to the film: as you probably know, this deliberately kitschy rock 'n' roll sci-fi gothic created a vogue for audience participation movies, for which ticket buyers often dress up as their favorite characters and sing along with the soundtrack and talk back rudely to the screen.
The spoken sass and bring-your-own props are now as fixed as a Latin Mass. This is all acknowledged by the Broadway ''Rocky Horror Show,'' which encourages theatergoers to treat the performers as if they existed in the flat eternity of a movie screen. Lines between the audience and the stage are conscientiously blurred in David Rockwell's nifty transformer set, which has an onstage section of seats inhabited by dummies and members of the supporting cast.
''Audience participation kits'' are on sale for $10, and the top ticket prices are $79.50. For eight or nine times the price of a movie, in other words, you can relive in simulation a film you have already seen and, if you're a cultist, seen many, many times.
You have to admit that it all makes a certain demented sense. A musical that deals with mutating identity and time warps becomes one of the most mutated, time-warped phenomena in show biz. And a movie that taught a generation cultural irony -- glorying in tackiness while sending up a variety of hoary entertainment genres -- is now itself being given a distancingly ironic treatment.
The sensibility starts with the casting of Mr. Cavett, the man who brought intellectual irony to television talk shows and whose heyday was appropriately the 1970's. Here he plays the narrator, a role that was originally rendered as a dour criminologist, with the wry, slightly befuddled air of detachment that is Mr. Cavett's signature.
He tells a few stand-up jokes and swaps barbs with theatergoers. (Sample exchange: Mr. Cavett does an imitation of Alfred Hitchcock and asks if anyone knows who he was supposed to be. ''Barbara Walters,'' answers a voice. ''Barbara Walters?'' says Mr. Cavett. ''That's funny. I must tell her that.'') The actual narration is run through quickly and dismissively, as if on the assumption that everybody already knows it.
The rest of the cast members do not play themselves, and their ease with an actively reactive audience varies considerably. Quick plot replay: Mr. Emmick (of ''Damn Yankees'') and Ms. Ripley (''Side Show'') portray Brad and Janet, the all-American, virginal couple who find themselves in a creepy castle when their car breaks down in a thunderstorm. There they encounter the ''sweet transvestite'' Transylvanian, Frank 'N' Furter (Mr. Hewitt, who played Scar in ''The Lion King'') and his ghoulish minions, who teach the young lovers to walk on the wild side.
The show has been in no one way radically reconceived. Only the casting gimmicks add novelty. There is the rough rock goddess Ms. Jett, who brings a street-tough edge to the role of a groupie first portrayed as a spangled tap dancer (by Nell Campbell, who went on to fame as a Manhattan nightclub hostess). And Ms. DeLaria, the energetic belter from ''On the Town,'' plays two male roles: the bicycle hood first portrayed by Meatloaf and the Dr. Strangelove-like Dr. Scott.
The band is first-rate, and the show's opening numbers are still invigorating. Mr. O'Brien was a pioneer in pop pastiche, and his score moves gleefully from 1950's wistfulness (''Science Fiction, Double Feature,'' nicely sung by Ms. Jett and Ms. Rubin-Vega) to 1970's glam-rock (''Sweet Transvestite''). The avatar of the latter sensibility is, of course, Frank 'N' Furter of the tight corset and fishnet stockings, the role made famous by Tim Curry.
Mr. Hewitt has plenty of presence, and he sells his songs confidently. But in an era when RuPaul is a cozy mainstream star, the menace has gone out of Frank 'N' Furter. He now seems less like a guide to forbidden sexual fruit than a colorful shopping consultant.
Ms. Ripley and especially Mr. Emmick give witty bona-fide musical comedy performances, which may be laboring in vain. Raul Esparza, as the hunchback major domo, is terrific leading the show's best number, ''The Time Warp.'' And Sebastian LaCause seems appropriately lost as the artificial slice of beefcake created by Frank 'N' Furter.
Probably the best way to get a sense of this latest ''Rocky Horror Show'' is to imagine a filthy rich couple of the 1980's (say Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg) deciding to throw the ultimate blowout party for a ''Horror''-loving son or daughter.
So they recruit some big-name talent, rent a theater and invite hundreds of children to rock, romp and sing along. At some point, however, they're sure to discover that it would have been so much easier, and probably more effective, to take everyone to the movie.
When it opened on Broadway a quarter-century ago, Variety succinctly and colorfully described "The Rocky Horror Show" as "a garish, ear-assaulting musical put-on of pseudo-science and ambi-sex porno entertainment." Sounds fun, no? Twenty-five years on, Christopher Ashley's revival of Richard O'Brien's garish, ear-assaulting musical put-on of pseudo-science and ambi-sex porno entertainment is still quite a lot of fun -- but it's not likely to send Mayor Rudolph Giuliani into a tizzy. Today, the musical nearly qualifies as wholesome family entertainment.
This new production isn't so much a revival of the original stage show -- a huge hit in London that flopped quickly on Broadway -- as a theatrical transcription of the 1975 screen version -- which morphed into a midnight-movie phenomenon -- to which the work gave birth. Energetic participation is all but demanded at Broadway's first interactive musical, which carries a high top ticket price ($79.50) for the game young audiences it will need to draw.
Onstage, the actors pause to welcome audience responses that were originally screamed impromptu at tattered movie screens and have now taken on the rigidity of liturgical texts. Whenever the name of our strait-laced hero Brad Majors is intoned, a booming chorus cries out "Asshole!"; mention of his fiancee Janet Weiss likewise invites the affectionate epithet "Slut!"
There are also goodie bags available (for a steep $10) containing flashlights and throwable items; confetti fills the air during the mock nuptials of mad scientist-cum-sweet transvestite Frank 'N' Furter and his manufactured man-thing Rocky. And we're all encouraged to join in a reprise of "Time Warp" at the curtain call. (I confess that I took a jump to the left and just kept on going; call me a spoilsport.)
While it's not a trend one wants to see spreading pell-mell up and down Broadway (it might be a bit distracting to have audiences shrieking "Asshole!" at "Copenhagen's" Niels Bohr), the raucous involvement of the folks in the seats gives a daffy boost to the appeal of this loving revival of O'Brien's musical, a flimsy but nonetheless durable spoof of a schlocky horror pic dressed up in a glitter-rock frock.
Equally crucial are the exuberant performances of the eccentrically chosen cast. Presiding over the festivities in his inimitably dry manner is Dick Cavett. He reads the show's tongue-in-cheek "Masterpiece Theater"-esque narration while engaging in his own witty interplay with the audience. At the performance reviewed, Cavett took pains to remind us that we were at "the 'Rocky' horror show, not that other one down in Florida," adding crisply, "Ours is more rational." And if you're really lucky you may get a chance to hear Mr. Cavett, in his impeccable upper-crust drawl, threaten to "bitch-slap" an unduly boisterous member of the audience.
Tom Hewitt steps bravely into the fishnets and platform heels of Frank 'N' Furter, the role that turned Tim Curry into a powerful icon of androgyny for many a sexually confused adolescent (and torpedoed his career, one fears, for a good decade). Hewitt's hair is bleached blond, but otherwise his aptly luscious performance is evocative of Curry's mixture of flamboyant menace and snarling song.
Frank's evil minions are convincingly played by Raul Esparza (Riff Raff), "Rent" alum Daphne Rubin-Vega (Magenta) and rocker Joan Jett (just a little stiff as Columbia). Like the show's small chorus of generic ghouls, they sport gothic makeup, fetish gear, piercing voices and pierced flesh; they're meant to represent the height of Transylvanian maleficence, even if the Marilyn Manson look is not all that spooky anymore -- it's practically become the corporate uniform at Tower Records.
Lea DeLaria is an arrestingly androgynous ball of fire in her two roles, while Sebastian LaCause, a beefy Chelsea type whose perma-tanned body apparently grows glitter rather than hair, fills out the brief requirements of the role of Rocky more than generously.
Of course, the really exotic figures in "Rocky Horror" are Brad and Janet, the soon-to-be newlyweds who get waylaid -- ahem! -- one dark and stormy night on the way to visit a friend. They're the ones who really seem to be from another planet, and they're played to perfection here by Alice Ripley ("Side Show") and Jarrod Emick ("Damn Yankees").
Peering intently through square black frames that echo his square jaw, Emick is a model of '50s young American manhood, and he's no slouch in gold leather heels, either. Ripley, pinup-pretty and dressed for the top of a wedding cake, is absolutely the freshest and funniest thing in the show; her wide-eyed comic asides as she traces Janet's transformation from sorority girl to sex kitten are priceless.
Vocally as well, Emick and Ripley are standouts; their clear and supple voices shine better than most through the lyric-mangling and, yes, ear-assaulting sound mix. O'Brien's score, '50s rock and soul run through a '70s synthesizer, is consistently infectious and rousing -- and far superior to his book, as he appears to know. Early in the second act, the plot begins decomposing before our eyes, and the show's long finale is performed concert-style, on a long runway that is the last of the many transformations undergone by David Rockwell's sometimes clever, sometimes awkward sets. (Rockwell, a restaurant and hotel designer, is making his theater debut.)
The whole cast assembles in matching gold heels and leather corsets, and shimmies through a last fervent splash of Jerry Mitchell's serviceably raunchy choreography (after "Rocky Horror" and "Full Monty," one wonders if Mitchell can work with properly clothed people). Then, all too soon, the party's over. The apparitions onstage disappear, the performers in the audience return to their anonymous selves and the rest of us are left to pick the confetti out of our hair.