The small and intimate Altarena Playhouse has got something big and outrageous to sing about and it's proving that little can sometimes be better if it's done right. Tucked away in the quiet suburban city of Alameda on the East Bay side of San Francisco, this Playhouse is packing them in - and for good reason - they are rockin' the house with an electrifying, must-see production of The Rocky Horror Show.
Be forewarned; this show is not for the faint of heart - you seriously have to leave your inhibitions at the door... because it's more fun that way. Making its London premiere in 1973 Rocky Horror is a rock-n-roll, B-movie, sci-fi, horror flick parody as well as a sexually scintillating, gender-bending, leather-loving freak show. And it is fabulous. Catchy tunes ("Time Warp," "Hot Patootie" and "Touch Me") wrap themselves around a skeleton of a plot but that doesn't seem to matter much to Rocky Horror's worldwide fans or to the audience in Alameda.
It starts out simply enough. Brad (Michael Scott Wells), the uptight but sincere boyfriend, and Janet (Meghan Ihle), the innocent and virginal fiancée, head out one dark and stormy night to visit an old college professor (Paul Plain) and, wonder of wonders, their car breaks down.
Naturally they seek refuge in a dilapidated old castle but here's the twist: the castle is inhabited by space alien transsexuals from the planet Transylvania. I know - hard to believe - but it's true. Dr. Frank N' Furter (Tomas Theirot) is very near completing a mad science experiment, the creation of a blond, well-built man named Rocky Horror (the sculpted Emilio Garcia-Sanchez). He invites Brad and Janet to come in. Cue the songs, the audience participation bags and the audience shout-outs during the show and get ready for a fab night of comedic macabre craziness.
Wells and Ihle are perfectly cast as the naïve couple who end up stripping off their clothes (almost all of them) as well as their innocence while in the castle. Costume designer Janice Stephenson nicely juxtaposes their straight-laced boy/girl-next-door outfits with the leather corsets, fishnet stockings and sparkly pasties that the castle creatures favor.
A host of characters, Riff-Raff( Bobby Bryce), Columbia (Carol Ann Gawrych), Magenta (Kerry McGinnis) and a quirky British narrator (right - he's the quirky one) played by Charles Evans add to the mayhem and madness. And rounding out the cast are the Phantoms (the ensemble) who sing and dance their way through this house of horrors with such amazing energy and enthusiasm that you forget you're in a small-size theater.
But the show belongs to Tomas Theirot, who is drop-dead brilliant as Dr. Frank N' Furter, the "sweet Transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania." Dressed in a black lace corset, fishnets and at least 4-inch heels, the already tall Theirot dominates the stage (and a few of the other characters) throughout the show. Electric blue eye shadow and uber-long false eyelashes frame eyes that grow steely with anger or hot with passion. His lipstick alone would be the envy of anyone attending SF's Exotic Erotic Ball.
But makeup and corset aside, it's Theirot's total embrace of the character that will pull you in and make you squirm with delight. His vocals are deep and intense when he belts out the words to "Sweet Transvestite," then seductively silky when he sings, "I'm Going Home." All in all Theriot is a triple-threat lascivious treat of a performer and he seems made for the role, which is what great acting should convey.
Director and choreographer Christina Lazo uses the central staging of Altarena to great advantage sometimes positioning the actors and Phantoms near the rafters of the castle (simple scenic design by Stewart Lyle) and other times draping them down a spiral staircase. When they all fill the stage you feel as if you're part of the action.
And indeed, in Rocky Horror, the audience is part of the action. The night we were there two leather-clad men lead the audience in shouting back bawdy remarks and X-rated catch-phrases that have been honed by Rocky Horror followers over its impressive 38 years of existence.
The Altarena Playhouse also has an impressive record. It is the oldest continuously operating community theater in the Bay Area, with over 70 years of shows to its credit, making it the perfect venue for one of the longest running shows of all time.