An Unabashedly Queer Celebration: “The Rocky Horror Show”

L to R: Jaclyn Chylinski (Phantom), Carly Grayson (Janet), Alexander Boyle (Brad) and Alex Jacobs (Narrator); Photograph: Sharman Altshuler.

Presented by Moonbox Productions 
Music, Lyrics and Book by Richard O’Brien
Directed by David Lucey
Music direction by Mindy Cimini
Choreography by Dan Sullivan
Costume Design by David Lucey
Set Design by Cameron McEachern
Lighting Design by Sam J. Biondolillo

Performance dates: Oct 18 – Nov 2, 2019
25 Brattle St, Cambridge MA
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Review by Chloé Cunha

(Cambridge, MA) As a lifelong Cambridge resident, I remember when the Harvard Square Theatre closed. Like many, I was deeply saddened by the loss of this cinema treasure, where I had spent many a day and night watching some fantastic– and truly terrible– movies. More specifically, it was painful for the loss of the weekly screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which had been an institution since 1984.

Moonbox Production’s Rocky Horror pop up in Harvard Square plays tribute to this much-missed tradition. A welcome warp through time, it is a fun, boisterous romp sure to delight fans and entertain newcomers.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Rocky Horror for short), for those uninitiated, is a cult classic 1975 musical that quickly became a midnight movie staple. Each screening typically has a “shadow cast” who act out the movie as it plays. In this adaptation, because the movie is not playing in the background, the shadow is the show with background Phantoms playing a larger role than usual (more on them in a moment).

The plot is gonzo and gloriously gay: a yuppie couple, Brad Majors (Alexander Boyle) and Janet Weiss (Carly Grayson) are stranded when their car breaks down outside an ominous castle. The head of the castle Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Peter Mill), is a cross-dressing mad scientist who unveils his latest invention, an artificially created muscle man named Rocky Horror (Jared Scott Miller). Long story short, Frank-N-Furter seduces them both, unlocking deeply repressed sexual desire. Everyone more or less loves and lusts for one another.

A key element to any Rocky Horror experience is audience participation, and this show was no exception. The production provides some helpful guidelines for those uninitiated, encouraging theatergoers to heckle appropriately– “ASSHOLE!” at Brad and “SLUT!” at Janet, for instance. Some audience engaged in this ritual with gusto, but the showing I attended was less rowdy than expected. It feels different to shout at an actor on stage than one on screen.

Peter Mill* (Frank N. Furter) and Jared Scott Miller (Rocky Horror); Photograph: Sharman Altshuler.

Maybe there were simply a lot of “virgins” at the show (people who have never been to a Rocky Horror screening). For a newcomer, following the plot may have been tricky. The flow of the show was fast-paced, and locations shifted quickly with few set markers to indicate where a scene was taking place.

However, you could argue the exact plot matters less than the overall feeling it gives. Rocky Horror is spectacle writ large, an unabashedly queer celebration of the glam and glitz of Old Hollywood. The production leaned heavily into this aspect of the show with more modern aesthetics. Lighting was rich and dramatic, actors often bathed in a deep purple, pink, or turquoise. Costuming was equally dazzling with loads of glitter, one Phantom rocking a full-on glitter-beard.

The set, by contrast, was minimalist in design, with the looming castle front (or abandoned cinema?) in the background. An important element of the set were the actors themselves: the Phantoms took on the role of set pieces as needed in a scene. In one moment, two Phantoms crouched on either side of Brad and Janet with flashlights to indicate the headlights of a car. In another, they stood in for the castle doors and rolled their eyes at the couple’s fright.

As a collective, the Phantoms’ enlarged role added a unique texture to a well-known story. Occasionally they would throw in some amusing ad-libs, such as one deriding Janet’s outfit as “probably bought at Target.” The Narrator (Alex Jacobs) also had some fun with timing his speech and responding to heckles. An exchange describing “clouds” stands out in particular. In another fun detail, Frank-N-Furter took a nice long sniff mid-song of a white powder, which I’m presuming was not a nasal decongestant.

The cast as a whole seemed to be having a blast.  The feeling of fun was contagious. The singing was really exceptional, often punctuated with enormous cheering.

Boyle particularly had a powerful set of pipes, and Grayson’s wide-eyed horror was a hoot. Kristen Ivy Haynes, portraying Columbia, had some great comedic timing, and showed off some tap dancing skills.

Mill as Frank-n-Furter was also a delight, his first appearance on stage earning a rapturous reception from the audience. Big (and very high) heels to fill given how beloved the source material, but he definitely rose to the challenge.

For all its campy glee, you can glimpse an undercurrent of something more serious and sincere in Rocky Horror. I’m struck by this line from the Narrator, near the finale: “And crawling on the planet’s face/some insects called the human race/Lost in time/and lost in space/and meaning.” Hard not to hear that and think of various global calamities, the climate crisis chief among them.

On a local level, I’m reminded again of the changing face of Harvard Square. Bittersweet, for instance, that the show itself is physically located where beloved candy store Hidden Sweets used to be. Director David Lucey said to me that he was one of many who used to attend Rocky Horror in Harvard Square, and that he misses it. Perhaps it’s some of that same feeling that made Mill’s final number “I’m Going Home” so arresting, and heart-wrenching. You can’t catch a screening of Rocky Horror in Harvard Square anymore; that era is long gone. But if you feel a twinge of nostalgia or curiosity for what used to be, this show may be the next best thing.

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