The song “Sword of Damocles” doesn’t appear until almost midway through The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it was probably running through fans’ minds a lot earlier than that when the TV-movie remake premiered on Fox Thursday night. Any shivering with anticipation quickly gave way to anticipating the most telling lyric of the night: “I’m at the start of a pretty big downer.” Sing it, doomed buff dude.
Like the characters Rocky and Eddie themselves, this production was operating on half a brain, with director Kenny Ortega showing little interest in anything beyond the most basic kara-Rocky-oke. Producer Lou Adler said recently the intention with this reboot was to introduce the franchise to 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old girls, but it’s hard to imagine midnight screenings of the riotously good 1975 original suddenly being overrun by newbie teens who, after seeing this, will still have as little idea about what’s enduring about the rock musical as Ortega does.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp turned out to have exactly two good ideas tucked away in its corset. One was having Ben Vereen, playing Dr. Scott and looking a lot like Tim Meadows dressed up as an bushy-browed old man for an SNL skit, run into a dancer dressed as his Broadway Pippin character. This blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment lasted for about three seconds. The other was casting Adam Lambert against type as the outmoded ‘50s rocker Eddie, giving the Idol champ a chance to ape Elvis instead of Freddy Mercury. This blink-thrice-and-you’ll-miss-it moment lasted for 3:06 (that’s the length, anyway, of “Hot Patootie,” which constitutes the character’s entire screen time before he’s murdered).
But, of course, this version’s reason for being — aside from training those prospective teen midnight attendees to stock up on confetti and Scott tissue — is Laverne Cox as the alien mad scientist, who is still called Frank-N-Furter, but is now supposed to be an actual woman instead of a guy in drag. (The pronoun change to “she” is nearly the only alteration to the ’75 screenplay, other than shifting the “Meat Loaf again?” gag from an audience participation bit to an actual on-screen joke.) Entire PhD theses can and probably have been written about gender fluidity in Rocky Horror, so the idea of casting a transgender gal is not without intrigue. But with her low-cut crimson gowns and deep cleavage, Cox is too, well, womanly for a role that no longer makes any sense if Mr. or Ms. Furter doesn’t at least bear a slight resemblance at some point to the movie mad scientists the part was supposed to be parodying. Tim Curry didn’t play the role as an actual transvestite, let alone transsexual, but more like David Johansen walked off the cover of the first New York Dolls album and turned out to be a lot more malevolent as well as effeminate. Cox did her best to come off as carnivorous as Curry, at least, but mostly just seemed… fabulous.
Granted, it’s kind of a no-win situation for anyone adapting a show with such iconic original casting as Rocky Horror, because if the radical rethink of Frank-N-Furter into a beautiful, voluptuous woman doesn’t work, neither does asking nearly everyone else in the cast to exactly embody their predecessors. Among the copycats, Victoria Justice actually turned out to be a pretty good sweet-voiced Susan Sarandon surrogate — and if seeing a Nickelodeon star in her bra for the last three-fourths of the movie doesn’t make you “feel dir-ir-ir-ty,” you haven’t watched nearly enough children’s television this century. Dammit, Janet/Tori Vega, I must avert my eyes! Since the Suite Life twins apparently weren’t available for soon-to-be-bisexual Brad, he was played by Ryan McCarten, and maybe he would have seemed more than just bland — which, yes, is part of the point with Brad, but still… — if enough of us had seen the Disney Network show that is supposed to make his appearance feel transgressive, too.
Riff Raff? Well, Reeve Carney (Broadway’s Spider-Man) certainly had O’Brien’s Igor-as-glam-rocker shtick down. But if you can’t make that first howling reading of “I remeeeeeember” in “Time Warp” feel like the most electrifying thing ever, it’s all over. Christina Milian just seemed overqualified for Magenta. Wastes of talent don’t get much more profound than burying Ben Vereen in sketch-comedy hair and makeup and then giving the most accomplished theatrical singer in the cast a speak-singing role. Bringing Curry in for the part of the narrator was a nice touch, and God bless them for including him, but his fleeting appearances may not have had the comforting effect intended, and abruptly cutting off his closing voiceover about the existential loneliness of the universe didn’t show enormous respect for him or the show.
What Rocky Horror always has, in any production, is one of the best song scores of the post-Rodgers & Hammerstein age; as rock musicals go, it’s at least up there with Jesus Christ Superstar, but even funnier. Though O’Brien’s score rarely gets the credit it’s due, it’s an incredibly versatile pastiche, moving right from ingénue numbers that could be right out of Bye Bye Birdie to guitar-crunching Stones rip-offs to big diva ballads. (It would have been nice of the producers to finally include “Once in Awhile” this time for the fans, but the fans weren’t the intended demographic.) The harder-rocking numbers didn’t really rock, but at least it’s hard to mess up “Dammit Janet.” And if Cox’s husky-feminine tones weren’t quite enough to sustain interest over the eight numbers Frank-N-Furter gets, you can’t fault her for not selling “I’m Going Home” hard enough.
But did anyone in the cast have any idea what they were singing about? Hard to tell, since Ortega was so interested in blocking dance moves for his mostly non-dancer cast that he forgot to give his actors close-ups for the key lines they sing. It’s as if they assumed viewers were already intimately familiar with the music… despite, you know, being 15-year-old girls. The cultural references in the lyrics were dated to 1970s audiences — and that was part of the joke, then: Although Frank-N-Furter and company were metaphors for sexual revolution warriors, all the sci-fi-loving alien Frank really wanted to be was Fay Wray to his creation’s Charles Atlas. Has Laverne Cox ever heard the name “Lili St. Cyr” before singing it in her closing number here? Probably not, and you sense the creative behind the scenes, probably wishing they could dumb down the clever lyrics the way they dumbed down the rest of the satirical tone.
Subversiveness in one era is hard to translate into another, of course, but there had to be a way to do Rocky Horror in 2016 and not have it look like a particularly tame frat party that just happened to have a theater nerd in the corner going off about Steve Reeves. But we’ll always have Curry, as the narrator not of a few token lines but our own journeys into psychosexual awareness and Stardust-ian musical theater. Now, as before this forgettable re-do, the saying still goes: It’s 12:00 somewhere.