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Short North Stage Burnish the Glow of The Rocky Horror Show

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Short North Stage Burnish the Glow of The Rocky Horror ShowRocky (Jay Reid) meets his maker, Dr. Frankenfurter (Nick Hardin), as the ensemble looks on. All photos by Jodi Miller.
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Short North Stage hits the season on the nose (and other appendages) with their new production of Richard O’Brien’s cult classic The Rocky Horror Show, directed and choreographed by Edward Carignan.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this doesn’t already know the story of the young and newly engaged couple Brad (Jake Loewenthal) and Janet (Eli Brickey) who find themselves stranded in a rainstorm with their only hope the home of alien mad scientist Frank N Furter (Nick Hardin).

Carignan packs this production, in the cramped confines of the Green Room, with wall-to-wall delights. Cabaret style tables put audience members ringside for the action, close enough to shout rude things or be sweat upon. The rest of the audience is presented with the best use of that space’s chairs-too-close-together vibe; the energy was palpable, enough to silence my screaming lower back.

Three Phantoms shine the way to Dr. Frankenfurter’s castle for unsuspecting Janet (Eli Brickey) and Brad (Jake Loewenthal), who are caught in a rainstorm.

Carignan sets the production in the mid-70s, and that subtle freezing-in-time to when it was written sharpens the contrast of the wide-eyed, baffled but intrigued straight world with the defiant, decadent, and justifiably paranoid party inside the mansion. It’s hard to imagine better interpretations of the former than Loewenthal’s Brad and Brickey’s Janet.

Janet is the emotional through-line of the piece, someone who finds the world is stranger and more beautiful than the shades of beige they grew up with, and Brickey tears into it with gusto. When Brickey hits her snapping point and seduces Furter’s “monster” Rocky (Jay Reid, in a comic-foil performance for the ages) in “Touch-a-Touch-a-Touch-Me,” it’s pure fist-pumping, cheering catharsis. Loewenthal captures the genuine affection Brad has for Janet and the layers of societal and psychological confusion of the modern “straight man” in a touching way; his Brad isn’t the usual punch-line.

Rocky gets an inspection from his creator, Dr. Frankenfurer as the Phantoms and captured guest, Brad, observe.

Also elevated beyond reductive punch lines and gestures is Cody Westbrook’s terrific Riff Raff. With makeup recalling Alice Cooper and a tailored vinyl suit and silver platforms that echo the Dolls and Marc Bolan, Westbrook underlines that Riff Raff is pulling the strings behind the scattered, charismatic genius. Lisa Glover’s Columbia and Tirzah Hawley’s Magenta are marvelous, a bent take on Abbott and Costello, with extra attention to Glover’s sudden pivot to heartbreak on her feature in “Planet Schmanet.”

This show doesn’t work if the sexually-fluid mad scientist Frank ‘N’ Furter isn’t on point. Nick Hardin outdoes himself as what has to be one of the most fun characters to play on a stage. Hardin leavens the intensity, fury, and lust at the core of the character with a smile that belies how much delight he sees in the world, and even hints of self-deprecation. His Frank is in on the joke of life, but that doesn’t make it less serious. You believe people would sign up for horrific experiments if he were the one holding the scalpel. One of these poor souls, Eddie, gets a riotous take from Tahrea Maynard (also good as Dr. Scott).

Edward Carignan’s choreography and direction restore the power to this Rocky Horror Show. He doesn’t just see it as camp, there’s plenty of that, but he never forgets it’s supposed to be hot. And he succeeds. No one here gets to stay a cartoon for long; there’s a fun, definitely adult sensibility at work, and it’s welcomed. The Phantoms (Katie Post, Nora Krupp, Jessica Rose, and Dan Kuhlman) go a long way to reinforcing that feeling. They not only provide harmonic commentary but stand in as awkwardly close human sets, including seat belts. The breathless pace goes a long way to presenting that sexual energy; this clocks in at a perfect hour-forty-five.

It disappointed me to not see the musicians credited in the program. I’d like to praise highly the people who executed Tim Valentine‘s beautiful musical direction. The guitar sounded like Zakk Jones but could have been Larry Marotta or someone from a jazz background I couldn’t place. There were also some minor sound issues where the Phantoms were too muffled, but that seemed to resolve after about half an hour.

The Rocky Horror Show runs through Nov. 18 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org.

Left to right: Magenta (Tirzah Hawley) and Columbia (Lisa Glover), cluster with Dr. Frankenfurter and Riff-Raff (Cody Westbrook).

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