What seems like the riskiest choice in Park Square Theatre’s “Rocky Horror Show” turns out to be a slam-dunk.
Gracie Anderson is outstanding as Frank-N-Furter, the “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania” who’s traditionally played by male actors. The role is a tricky one that contains dated notions of gender and sexuality, and it feels like a mistake for Park Square to have shifted the setting to the present since, if that song were written today, the only way it’d fly is if it were more like “a sweet genderqueer person from nonbinary Transylvania.” (When trans actor Laverne Cox played the role, she drew criticism for helping to perpetuate stereotypes.)
But the notion of how Frank identifies is muddled enough — and the character’s pronounced defiance of restrictive labels is ahead of its time enough — that there’s room for Anderson to make the role her own, neither a transvestite nor a transsexual but simply a beautiful human.
Probably the first actor in history to segue from playing Rosemary Clooney (in Old Log Theatre’s “Tenderly”) to Frank-N-Furter, Anderson gets the go-for-broke quality of her character just right. Asserting that “there’s no crime in giving yourself over to pleasure,” Anderson embodies that, commanding the stage like a rock star and belting the heck out of Frank’s musical numbers.
All of the voices in this production are strong, even if sound problems on opening night sometimes made it difficult to hear them. Director Ilana Ransom Toeplitz has asked the actors to walk a fine line between exaggeration and over-the-top and they succeed, with Ben Lohrberg’s straight-laced Brad and Sara Ochs’ befuddled Dr. Scott particularly strong. As Frank’s handmade sex object, Rush Benson is very funny and his abs must be seen to be believed.
If I’d left at intermission, I’d have thought this “Rocky Horror” was about as good as it could be. As naive couple Brad and Janet find their horizons broadened after they stumble upon Frank’s house of unbridled pleasure, the first act is one catchy song after another. Some of its ideas seem almost quaint in a time when the nightly news does stories about polyamory, but Toeplitz finds new ways to up the outrageousness in a production that appears to have spent a sizable portion of its budget on lingerie and dildos.
After the intermission, though, it began to seem like “Rocky Horror” might work better as a tight, 90-minute one-act. Several second-act songs are dull, and too much time is spent tying up plot strands we don’t care about. There are distractions: Smartly, Park Square sells a $5 bag of items to be used to interact with the show the way audiences have participated in the cult movie for years.
The cast responded well when seasoned audience members shouted punchlines at them, but I kept wondering if it would be wrong of me to tactfully yell, “Please cut musical numbers 11 through 13!”
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The Rocky Horror Show
Who: By Richard O’Brien. Directed by Ilana Ransom Toeplitz.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 2.
Where: Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul.
Tickets: $16-$70. 651-291-7005, parksquaretheatre.org.