What better way to celebrate the Halloween season than with the first-class productions of Ballet West’s Dracula and Pioneer Theatre Company’s The Rocky Horror Show.
BALLET WEST: DRACULA
By Chris Myers
In 1997, choreographer Ben Stevenson chose to celebrate the centennial of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a ballet adaptation that would not have seemed out of place in the novel’s own time. “I envisioned Dracula as a classical tale,” Stevenson said. “In fact, in creating the scenario for Dracula, I’ve treated the story like a classical ballet in the old sense… My production of Dracula uses the format of one of the great nineteenth century ballets, with three acts and a corps de ballet.”
On Oct. 20, a Capitol Theatre audience filled with enthusiastic dance-lovers in gothic garb and plastic vampire teeth buzzed with anticipation as the curtain rose on Ballet West’s staging of this nostalgic creation.
Sure enough, Stevenson’s Dracula deftly channels the spirit of the great story ballets like Giselle, Sleeping Beauty and La Sylphide. This is as much a tribute to the grand spectacle of ballet’s golden age as it is to Gothic horror. And, in fact, the story often takes a backseat so that Stevenson can indulge in some classic ballet tropes. The dance, the design, the special effects… they all would have seemed familiar to 1897 audiences, even if the choreography shows occasional hints of George Romero in Stevenson’s Perrot-Petipa blend.
Rather than commission original music for this retro vision, Stevenson asked legendary ballet conductor John Lanchbery to orchestrate popular works by Franz Liszt (music perfectly at home in 1897). Lanchbery responded by editing fragments from over a dozen orchestral and piano pieces into a coherent score that effectively supports Stevenson’s three-act scenario, creating a well-paced, dramatically effective story.
Unfortunately, while Lanchbery’s edits are masterful, his orchestrations are serviceable at best and often detract from the musical grandeur. Awkward moments abound, such as figurations that were clearly copied from the left hand of a piano part rather than reconceived to sound idiomatic on orchestral strings.
The result is a score that often sounds far too dry to be Liszt (Lanchbery seems to have forgotten that an orchestra doesn’t have a sustain pedal). In the moments we do encounter sparkle and orchestral color, it’s quickly evident that we’ve stumbled into a segment of Liszt’s original orchestration, which only makes the contrast with Lanchbery’s work more stark. There are also moments of questionable musical taste. Several people around me giggled at the cabaret piano glissandos that accompanied Dracula’s abduction of Svetlana at the end of Act II and the silent film piano tremolos that appeared in Act III.
However, these are the faults of the show’s authors, not of its performers. And on Friday night, conductor Jared Oaks and the Ballet West Orchestra competently confronted the score’s shortcomings, giving a solid reading that effectively supported the drama.
Thomas Boyd’s sets and Judanna Lynn’s costumes remain the Gothic delights that they were at the show’s debut. Jim French lit them with a subtle touch that added depth and the requisite amount of shadowy creepiness.
On stage, Jenna Rae Herrera’s Svetlana radiated such effortless charm and humanity that it would be impossible not to fall in love with her. Jordan Veit’s Frederick was a study in boyish playfulness and guileless enthusiasm. Their love was utterly believable, and the Act II grand pas de deux projected pure innocence and joy. The audience was unquestionably on their side, and you could feel the tension in the house when vampiric evil threatened their happiness.
As Dracula’s henchman, David Huffmire’s neurotic tics and athletic outbursts walked a virtuosic tightrope between comic and unsettling. Emily Adams exhibited the zeal of a true convert as the count’s newest wife. And if Adrian Fry’s Dracula was perhaps more stately than threatening, his charisma and grace held our attention as raptly as that of the many many wives he held under his spell.
And speaking of those many wives, the women of the Ballet West corps delivered perhaps the finest ensemble performance I’ve seen from this company. It’s a tribute to these artists that the show felt as engaging as it did. Stevenson’s more indulgent moments can easily rob this show of momentum. The lengthy variations that comprise most of Act I, especially, have the potential to lose the audience before the story even begins. But Ballet West’s corps infused this opening with subtle character development that held our attention through the rather conventional choreography.
Far from being interchangeable, the corps truly conveyed the impression that Dracula had several dozen individuals under his spell, each with her own history and personality. It’s only good taste (and editorial restraint) that prevents me from saying that they really sunk their teeth into these roles.
Ballet West’s Dracula runs through Oct. 28 at the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre. For more information and tickets, see the Ballet West website.
PIONEER THEATRE COMPANY: THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW
By Les Roka
With a sensuous cornucopia of voluptuous sizzle and kinky vibes, Pioneer Theatre Company’s (PTC) stupendous production of The Rocky Horror Show has proven the case of why this 50-year-old show is the longest running contemporary stage musical in the world.
Directed and choreographed by Karen Azenberg, the production brought a thunderous ovation on opening night. It is a sharp-witted show that plays up its organic historical bearings while giving audiences an exhilarating fresh take on Richard O’Brien’s pop culture warhorse.
Many have come to know this musical through the 1975 film adaptation, directed by Jim Sharman. Critics lambasted the movie but it soon became a classic midnight screening event. In 1976, word spread about how audiences at New York City’s Waverly Theater would dress up as the characters and interact with the on-screen action. The tradition continues through today, everywhere. Generations of Rocky Horror ‘virgins’ have dutifully carried the home-grown vestiges of cultural fandom that veterans have amassed over the years.
Of course, PTC’s stage production invites a similar experience. This includes prop bags that audience members can purchase for $5. But, even without such enhancements, one can be easily gratified by this titillating theatrical experience.
In the Seventies, O’Brien built the show as a first-rate collage that melds Gothic horror stories, classic and B-Hollywood films, the rise of glam metal and pop stars such as Alice Cooper and David Bowie, drag culture and the queer liberation and sexual revolution movements that gathered steam.
Azenberg, the creative team and the cast have done all of their homework to nail The Rocky Horror Show cultural foundations. The PTC production evokes the rapid changes that were happening in the vocabulary of queer and trans subcultures, along with an appreciation of kinks and fetishes as healthy explorations and a finely pitched acknowledgment of Gothic literary and cinematic conventions. Nostalgia for the 1950s hit big in the 1970s and O’Brien, a New Zealand transplant who landed in the U.K., gave the world a cosmopolitan pastiche that is as globally popular as Michael Jackson’s Thriller became in the 1980s.
There is just enough in the purposefully self-deprecating camp culture of these familiar nostalgic tropes and stereotypes to make this musical a bona fide homage to a huge chunk of pop culture history. In 2023, The Rocky Horror Show reminds that liberation, enlightenment and empowerment humanize us and comedy can be just as effective as drama, especially for those of us who are shy and feel awkward about connecting to others.
From the opening number in the show, it was evident that the PTC ensemble was going for the grand slam. The song is a fantastic tribute to a slew of classic horror and science fiction movies – from The Invisible Man and King Kong to Flash Gordon and to The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space, along with Forbidden Planet, The Night of the Demon and The Day of the Triffids.
Dances, including the iconic Time Warp, tip their hats to some of the best known 1950s dance fads such as the Twist, the Hucklebuck, the Funky Chicken and the Locomotion. O’Brien, who appeared in musicals such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, had the right flair for writing rock songs that would find their way into the musical, including I’m Going Home, Once in a While and Super Heroes.
The eye candy on stage is just salacious enough to stimulate the senses, without feeling guilty or ashamed about it. Take the most provocative protagonist to grace a musical stage: Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Jeremiah James), who epitomizes the musical’s culture underpinnings, and the scientist’s creation Rocky (Michael Dalke, who could kick sand in Charles Atlas’ face on the beach). True, it references Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There also is Riff Raff (Hernando Umana), who is indisputably more tantalizing than Bela Lugosi’s Ygor in the 1939 film Son of Frankenstein. But, the classic film that perhaps is best embedded in Rocky Horror is The Old Dark House, a 1932 flick directed by James Whale, who established the tropes of old dark mansions and a stormy night for horror narratives.
Rocky Horror replicates the narrative contours of this classic by Whale, who was well known in Hollywood’s studio era as an out-and-proud filmmaker. In The Old Dark House, it was a stiff-lipped conservative British family. Hence, in the musical, Brad and Janet, the straight-laced, demure couple find refuge in a strange castle and Riff Raff introduces them to Dr. Frank-N-Furter, just as Rocky is about to make a debut as the perfect sexual being. Of course, instead of Brad and Janet spending the night wondering if they will be harmed by horror, they are initiated into a world of carnal pleasures that they have never imagined happening. Kudos to the PTC production team for accomplishing this with rip-roaring comedic, unashamed effects, especially in the second act opening.
There were plenty of people in the opening night audience who knew the fan lines that have become part and parcel of the Rocky Horror theatrical experience. And, while many associate the audience participation with the 1975 film, the impetus for lines being shouted from the audience came even earlier. As a 1975 New York Times feature in its international edition chronicled, Tim Curry, who played the lead, experienced the first instance of it on a stage during a 1973 performance in London. David Bowie and Angela (his wife at the time) were attending and at the moment when Dr. Frank-N-Furter was being threatened with a ray gun by Riff-Raff and Magenta, Bowie’s wife shouted, “No, don’t do it!” Curry said that was the first time anything like that happened. The practice spread like wildfire.
Everyone hits their mark in the PTC production, finding the right timing to capture the audience’s willingness to interact mid-performance. The cast zeroes in effortlessly with excellent pacing. Special mentions on full-throated vocals and spot-on lyrical phrasing go to Jeremiah James, Hernando Umana, André Jordan, Micki Martinez and Alex Walton. In addition to the aforementioned leads, there are Ginger Bess (Magenta) and David Beach (Dr. Scott), who appeared in PTC’s 2014 and 2015 concert versions of the musical. Alex Walton (Brad) and Alanna Saunders (Janet) are marvelous to watch in their self-conscious transformation from virgins to sexually enlightened and confident beings. The ensemble is just as scintillating with Micki Martinez (Columbia) and André Jordan (Eddie). Comprising the solid Phantoms core are Lauren Crutcher, Jordan Cruz, Evan Latta, Lila Prince and James Wong.
The opening night cast included former Utah house representative and state senator Steve Urquhart, who was narrator on opening night. In the Land of Zion, there are plenty of Brads and Janets who are probably too shy or feel awkward about stepping out of their comfort zones. Indeed, Urquhart, who was once the archetypical Mormon legislator, began transforming himself in the last half of his political career. He advocated for anti-discrimination laws to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community, medical marijuana, a beefing up of hate crimes legislation and the abolition of the death penalty. Today, he and his wife run a religious nonprofit as a proponent for the safe use of psilocybin mushrooms. Urquhart shares the role as narrator in rotation throughout the run with two other prominent Utahns: Randall Carlisle, who retired from a long broadcasting career and now works for the Odyssey House of Utah treatment center, and Babs De Lay, a real estate broker and community leader.
Joining Azenberg on the creative team are George Maxwell (scenic designer), Aaron Swenson (costume designer), Aaron Spivey (lighting designer), Aaron Hubbard (sound designer), Byron Batista (hair and makeup supervisor) and Emily Nacrissa Griffith (production stage manager).
Performances continue through Oct. 31. There also will be additional late evening performances on Oct. 28 (9:30 p.m.) and Oct. 31 (10 p.m.). During the performance, at the prompting by the narrator, audience members become part of the storytelling with a pre-assembled group of show-specific props. The kits are now available for pre-order for $5, or can be purchased at the performance. Pre-ordering a kit is recommended. Please note that homemade/outside/non-PTC kits or props are not permitted in the theater. For tickets and more information, visit PioneerTheatre.org.