The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a formula that continues to work astonishingly well, all things considered. It’s a borderline nonsensical celebration of the camp and the queer that still delights audiences four decades on. It’s also a formula that a lot of filmmakers and stage directors are fearful to change. Not least because the musical and film has such a devout and protective purist fan-base.
Redoing Rocky Horror is a Herculean task, then, but, in my eyes, nobody is better equipped to tackle it than Kenny Ortega. The man who directed Hocus Pocus and the High School Musical trilogy as well as being the choreographer for Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a more-than safe pair of hands, he’s almost a sure-fire way to guarantee The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again success.
On the other hand, the casting of activist and actor Laverne Cox as the show’s hypersexual, unhinged scientist, was, initially, less inspiring. Putting aside the rather perplexing gender politics involved, Cox isn’t a singer and many felt, right up until broadcast, that she wasn’t right for the part. But, despite reservations, Cox knocked it out of the park.
Dr Frank-N-Furter anchors every production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and so is crucial to the success of any production. Laverne Cox’s take on the character is visually different to her predecessors (who traditionally hew closer to the look of Tim Curry’s original, iconic Frank-N-Furter) but she has the right kind of energy for the role. She fills the scientist with just the right amount of malice, mischievousness and bawdiness, but it feels like she’s being stopped from fully embracing the part’s edgier sides, and that’s not Cox’s fault.
There’s a slickness to The Rocky Horror Picture Show that really shouldn’t exist. It’s a musical that works best when executed crudely, with an appealingly makeshift set design that creates an overall feeling of spontaneity. Because spontaneous energy really is Rocky Horror’s bread and butter, Ortega’s new ‘tribute’ (the marketing insisted time and time again that it wasn’t a remake; while it technically is, it’s clear that everyone involved has a great deal of respect for the original and simply wants to have a bit of fun) has far too expensive production values and fails to capture the right aesthetic.
It doesn’t help that the studio’s influence is clear. Aside from noticeable cosmetic differences (Columbia wears a tutu instead of hot pants; Rocky’s pants are looser; Dr Frank-N-Furter is significantly more clothed), the more sexed-up scenes are deprived of any raunch. This only hampers those involved in them – Cox, Ryan McCartan, Victoria Justice, and Staz Nair – with pretty lifeless material to work with. Justice, who plays the wide-eyed, virginal Janet Weiss, gets the best song in the form of Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me but it lacks any kind of meaning with decidedly unsexy choreography and a prudish direction.
On many occasions The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again feels forced but the performances manage to shine through. Save for Laverne Cox, McCartan and Justice as Janet and Brad are far and away the best part of this production and both nail the roles of the strait-laced yet open-minded sweethearts. It’s also great to see Tim Curry pop up as the Criminologist, the show’s omniscient narrator.
As a musical, this Rocky Horror works (no small thanks to the fact the original script and songs are used) and like the set design the music has been tweaked. Not all the songs work, however. Sweet Transvestite is a bit creaky, particularly owing to Dr Frank-N-Furter’s glammed-up appearance and the fact the character is, bluntly, no longer a transvestite. Touch-a, Touch-a… is great and Adam Lambert both successfully channels Meat Loaf (no mean feat) and improves upon Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul. Additionally, the decision to replace the red lips at the beginning actually pays off, with an excellent physical performance of Science Fiction/Double Feature by Ivy Levan.
The problem with tackling Rocky Horror is that you either have to go hard or go home. Kenny Ortega’s take on the iconic show is more or less faithful narratively but it sanitises the original’s more risqué moments and if you don’t keep the rougher edges then you’re left with very little. The few original ideas feel out of place because this production tries desperately to emulate the film and also do its own thing at the same time (exemplified by having Laverne Cox in the main role).
Fortunately, the fine work of a game cast as well as some excellent songs manages to salvage The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again and it’s a lively, entertaining way of spending an hour and a half. But it’s clear that it’s very difficult to do the Time Warp again, and maybe this just wasn’t worth the effort.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again airs in the UK on Sky Cinema on Friday the 28th ofOctober.