When Fox broadcast Grease Live! back in January, it was, somewhat unsurprisingly, a ratings smash. The live musical production, which consisted of 21 indoor and outdoor set pieces, was successful in unexpected ways. Grease is a timeworn production, one that had been performed countless times on big and small stages. Yet it felt temporarily revitalized by an illusion of spontaneity and the introduction of cameras. Grease Live! often felt more like a magic trick than a production—even the bumpiest moments were offset with a constant sense of visual invention.
Fox’s follow-up, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, is an attempt to rebottle that sensation, but there are far more barriers to adapting Jim Sharman’s pioneering 1975 cult classic. Granted, the pure insanity of the film evolved long ago from a piece of counterculture madness into a mass-market celebration of the spectrum of identity. But even as the original film has been co-opted by every theater kid doing a monologue and kitschy merchandise at your local Hot Topic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has maintained its spirit of transgression.
With its pansexual exhibitionism, breathlessly horny narrative, and a soundtrack inspired by glam icons like The New York Dolls, David Bowie, and T. Rex, The Rocky Horror Picture Show still feels effortlessly dangerous, more like a party than a cinematic experience. That all sounds like it would lend itself to the context of the filmed stage, but Do the Time Warp Again is hopelessly caught in the middle between the glossiness of high-budget stage musicals and the demented, anything-goes camp of the film.
Directed and choreographed by Kenny Ortega, who made his name on the High School Musical series, this reincarnation feels bizarrely staid, especially given Ortega’s penchant for dynamic dance and musical sequences. Occasionally, there’s an attempt to genuflect toward the unfettered energy of the original film, but, in general, there’s almost none of the trickery that elevated Grease Live, let alone the High School Musical series.
Drabness is far from the main problem, though. Rather, nearly every element of the show feels overly considered, from the acting to the production design to the arrangements. There’s such a self-conscious pressure hanging over this production. Even the most concrete additions to the original text are just moments pandering to fans who’ve experienced the movie version in all its glory (with audience members throwing props and anticipating lines). The moments of true subversion are totally accidental, times when the cast feels like they’re being unleashed rather than reined in by the production.
The opening even belies the deeply conservative approach to Fox’s adaptation, forgoing the film’s signature opening—those lips!—for one in which new character Usherette (Ivy Levan) sings an orchestral version of “Science Fiction/Double Feature” in a movie theater that’s showing Rocky Horror Picture Show.
It’s an admirable gambit to try to fold Rocky Horror’s infamous live movie theater performances into the context of the film. But aside from a few meta-textual reminders that will be familiar to anyone who’s experienced the lavish absurdity in a theater, its inclusion is both superfluous and takes away from the main story.
Nostalgia is a persistent albatross around this whole presentation, as the story replicates nearly every narrative turn—even when they’re nearly incoherent in the original film. This vagueness was a dominant mode of storytelling in the film, but there’s a constant lucidity to this production that tempers every moment of abandon. Over and over, the production feels like a studied attempt to achieve spontaneity, as if the cast is trapped in a re-enactment rather than an adaptation. It just doesn’t work, and it’s not for lack of trying from the talented cast.
Leads Ryan McCarten, as Brad, and Victoria Justice, as Janet, initially feel too performative in their roles as fuddy-duddies, foregrounding their repressed sexuality instead of letting it slip into their delivery. McCarten, especially, exudes a hunk energy that undermines the nebbishness of his character. But Justice brings a reckless energy to Janet that pays dividends in the second and third acts.
As the destructive and seductive Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Laverne Cox comes the closest to capturing the winking tone of the original, chewing on the scenery with the chunky intonation that’s meant to capture the Transylvanian descent of her character. Returning to the sullen luxury of his character in Penny Dreadful, Reeve Carney also hits a sweet spot in his portrayal of Riff Raff. But the production transitions between dialogue and musical numbers in such a disjointed way that it eliminates any sense of organic motion.
All of the obvious highlights show up here, from “Do the Time Warp,” “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me,” to “Rose Tint My World.” But they rarely feel as expansive or grandiose as in the original film, especially strange given that Fox’s production reportedly cost $20 million. The numbers have been re-recorded and ornamented with all kinds of flourishes, but they often feel overly clinical in their attempts to highlight the big climaxes of these songs.
One of the only moments of raw energy comes courtesy of Adam Lambert, who absolutely kills his single scene by actually treating it like rock and roll. For a moment, all the pomp is ignored, and the true Rocky Horror comes out, one that revels in the possibility that truly anything could happen. Unfortunately, that never feels like the case with the rest of Do the Time Warp Again.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Fox.
Michael Snydel is a Chicago-based film and tv critic who has somehow tricked other people into reading his thoughts on the things he loves for years. His interests include intimate psychological thrillers, teen soaps and Krautrock. He writes regularly for Paste Magazine, is a co-host of The Film Stage Show, and has had by-lines at The Film Stage, Ebert Voices, Movie Mezzanine, and Vague Visages. You can follow him on Twitter at @Snydel.