It’s astounding. Time really is fleeting. It’s been over forty years since Richard O’Brien’s anarchic, subversive and brazenly salacious musical horror comedy exploded onto the big screen. Buoyed by their recent successes with “Grease Live”, Fox raided their back catalogue to bring Frank-N-Furter and co romping into the twenty-first century.
When straight-laced couple Brad and Janet find themselves broken down on an isolated highway, salvation seems at hand when they spy a light, over at the Frankenstein place. But their arrival has coincided with an auspicious occasion and Brad and Jane are set to experience a night of debauchery that will change their lives forever.
Packed with classic horror and sci-fi b-movie references, “The Rocky Horror Show” has always had a cordial relationship with Halloween, providing so many iconic characters to dress up as and plenty of songs for a spooky party playlist. Of course, there’s little actual horror despite the implied presence of vampires, aliens, zombies and homunculi. There’s a curiously British cheesiness to the whole affair, marked by a fondness for silly puns and wordplay in amongst the joyfully hedonistic and deliriously deviant sexuality of the musical. Like “Grease” before it, when it comes to the film version, they set the bar so high it casts a very long shadow.
It’s a shadow this TV movie reimagining can’t escape, even in the capable hands of director Kenny Ortega (“Hocus Pocus”, “High School Musical”, “Michael Jackson: This Is It”). The decision to avoid a ‘live’ production is understandable if slightly disappointing but the choice to try to mount a hybrid staging with a de facto ‘audience’ watching the production on a mock cinema screen misfires confusingly. Sure, it’s a nice nod to the film’s cult following but it’s just confusing to anyone new to the musical and adds little to the story.
The staging is competent enough and it picks up the fundamental weirdness of the musical without managing to recreate the knowing campiness that set the movie apart. The musical numbers, like much of the cast, feel slightly anaemic and with the exceptions of Annaleigh Ashford’s Columbia and Laverne Cox’s Frank-N-Furter there’s a distinct lack of anything energised, provocative or transgressive. Despite its lascivious roots, this feels tamer and more restrained even than the “Glee” version. It’s a genuine puzzle that in this supposedly enlightened, permissive age, Rocky is required to wear voluminous basketball shorts forty years after a pair of gold speedos were considered sufficient wardrobe.
Too many times the cast lapse into impersonating their movie predecessors and yet lack the charisma and presence to do so. Laverne Cox is occasionally great when she decides to make Frank-N-Furter her own but when she tries to imitate Tim Curry, it feels hollow. Given the timidity of the rest of the production, Fox’s uncharacteristically enlightened choice in the role is to be acknowledged even if, for me, having an actual transsexual actress as Frank-N-Furter robs the character of some of its subversive, debauched frisson. On the other end of the scale, in a musical where subtlety is already in short supply, Christina Milian amps up the ham factor with a manically over-acted Magenta.
It’s toned down, tamely spoopy fun but given the boundary-pushing nature of the original and the scope to do so much more in today’s climate, it’s a missed opportunity to redefine a classic for a new era. It was nice to see Tim Curry back in action one more time, though.