Normally, I would trek through broken glass -- well, okay, walk several city blocks in new high heels -- to see Nicholas Sugar perform. It's not just his humor and intense stage presence; it's the fact that in the past he's added interesting colors to roles that could easily be one-dimensional. His Emcee in Cabaret enjoyed his own evildoing so wholeheartedly that you couldn't help cheering every malign impulse. As Bat Boy, Sugar was part animal, scuttling and gibbering about the stage, but he was also touching when the character struggled to become human. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, however, is just a pure distillation of camp, and though Sugar camps with brio, his performance here is far less singular.
Of course, there's no point talking about character in relationship to the Rocky Horror Show, which tells the story of an innocent young couple whose car stalls on a country road and who enter a sinister castle searching for a phone. What follows is a parade of freaky characters and a mishmash of horror-movie bits, with lots of sex and singing thrown in. The show is very much of its time. It premiered in the early 1970s, after the 1969 Stonewall riots that energized gay activists all over the country and led to a few years of joyous hedonism and self-assertion, and before the AIDS epidemic that shut all the rejoicing down. Part of the appeal of Rocky -- which doesn't make a lot of sense and isn't really particularly funny or shocking anymore -- is the bond the musical has formed over the years with its audiences.
People thronged midnight showings of the 1975 film version in costume and carrying props. They sang; they called encouragement to the characters; they roared and chanted; they knew the exact moments when participation was expected, and they rose to their feet, responding as one. But those original Rocky Horror devotees are in their fifties now, and anyone producing the show has to figure out an approach that will both intrigue the young and uninitiated and satisfy those for whom it represented a coming-of-age ritual and a discovery of community and acceptance. Unfortunately, Pinnacle Dinner Theatre doesn't meet the challenge.
There's no shortage of talent on the stage. To begin with, you have Sugar, juicily leering and bouncing his way through the lead role. And if there are no standouts among the rest of the cast (though Amy Board has a weird, funny, eccentric moment that entirely caught my attention), every member is competent or better. Margie Lamb has a strong musical-comedy style and voice as Janet, and Chris Boeckx is an appropriately gawky, gangly Brad. Janelle Kato does some impressive belting; Brian Burron is physically and vocally perfect as the ominous Riff Raff; and Jeffrey Atherton gives the world-weary Narrator just a hint of quirkiness. Kurt E. Kruckeberg's singing is one of the high points of the evening.
But the venue is a big problem. Dining at the newly renovated Pinnacle is intended to be a touch more elegant than at other dinner theaters, with wineglasses and linens on the tables. But this emphasis means that too little attention has been paid to the acoustics and the size and shape of the stage, which mirrors the wider-than-deep configuration of the restaurant area (and the restaurant area is cavernous). This is a setup that dissipates music and action instead of focusing them. The uneven miking doesn't help.
And then there's this note in the program: "For the safety of the actors, there is no audience participation allowed."
No audience participation? Heresy. Even I, who had never seen Rocky Horror before, knew that at specific points in the action, the audience was supposed to squirt water, hold newspapers over their heads and fill the auditorium with flickering lights -- and the two Rocky veterans at my table became increasingly restless as the evening progressed. You might as well serve grilled tofu at a barbecue or stage opera without singing as perform The Rocky Horror Show sans audience participation.
Choreographer-director Ann Nieman needed to inject more speed and punch into the production, too. She has the actors spend a lot of time strutting from one side of the stage to the other, and up and over a long, long staircase. But then again, there's a lot of ground to cover on this far-from-intimate stage.
I don't want to exaggerate. Some parts of the evening were fun. We all laughed periodically. But with Nicholas Sugar on stage, I expect more than a lukewarm good time.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.