By Ty Burr
Updated November 24, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Why would anyone want to stage a Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show, an artifact as mired in the 1970s as a pet rock? It surely can’t be because it’s a good play. The story line trash-compacts cheesy horror movies and kinky drag-queen camp into an incoherent whole; the music glibly parodies ’50s rock forms à la Grease; a typical lyric runs, ”You’re a hot dog, but you better not try to hurt her… Frank Furter.” As for the omnivorous sexuality that seemed so dangerous in the early ’70s — well, how you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Matt Lauer dressed as Jennifer Lopez?

Why bring the thing back? Of course: the audience. As we all know, Richard O’Brien’s theatrical pastiche found lasting glory only when it morphed into 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, attracting a cult that danced the Time Warp on the seats and treated the film as raw material for the audience’s own dreams of stardom. It’s the genius of Broadway’s new Rocky Horror to let the movie, at last, talk back.

That means when narrator Dick Cavett mentions squeaky-clean Janet, and the diehards yell, ”Slut!”, Cavett can blithely respond, ”Oh, she’s from an old family.” (Beat, sotto voce: ”…the Bushes.”) Or when the cross-dressing mastermind Frank ‘N’ Furter (Tom Hewitt) sings of being ”breathless with antici–” and the folks in the back row call out, ”Say it!” with Pavlovian precision, Hewitt can now bark back, ”Go ahead, bait me!” before finishing the line. The give-and-take lends an exhilarating zip to an evening that otherwise has no particular reason to exist. The sets, courtesy of superstar architect David Rockwell, are strikingly fluid. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography makes sly use of the Circle in the Square’s thrust (ahem) stage. It’s all grand, reheated silliness. And it all feels a little Nick at Nite.

Of the big names in the cast, Cavett triumphs as the emcee: Heckling the latecomers, riffing on the news, he’s a delightfully tweedy tummler. By contrast, Joan Jett never quite adapts her proto-riot grrrl rock persona to the role of Columbia, if only because she’s not trained for this kind of stage. (When she plugs in a guitar and shreds a few chords, she’s on home turf.) Hewitt’s Furter doesn’t vanquish memories of Tim Curry’s filthy dandyism in the film, but he still gives the role a bitchy, aggressive spin that’s highly enjoyable.

Go for the fun, then, but don’t expect teeth marks. Even director Christopher Ashley fesses up to the inherent quaintness of Rocky Horror these days by way of the videotaped epilogue that sends Brad (Jarrod Emick) and Janet (Alice Ripley), clad in glittery bustiers and thigh highs, out to wander the crowded streets of modern Times Square. Nobody, of course, blinks an eye. B

The Rocky Horror Show (stage)

  • Stage
  • Christopher Ashley