Some pleasures resist recreation.
To be sure, few people (and almost no critics) were using the word “pleasure” to describe The Rocky Horror Picture Show when it was first released in 1975. The film flopped, and for good reason: Once you get past the opening half-hour or so, where the best songs reside, the movie slowly meanders its way through a kind of whacked-out, indifferent incoherence.
And yet, instead of falling into the oblivion that greeted such musical contemporaries as At Long Last Love and The Blue Bird, Rocky triumphed as a midnight-show cult hit. Younger audiences looked past the film’s structural problems to embrace its virtues: its straights-join-the-freaks theme, and its then-novel championing of sexual fluidity. Crowds — which, let’s be honest, tended to arrive in an altered state — didn’t just show up, they dressed up and acted out.
For decades since, Rocky has inspired a loopy, loosely structured participatory costume party built around shouting out lines and mimicking the on-screen action. It's audience as co-star — a phenomenon director Kenny Ortega tries to incorporate into Fox's The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again (Thursday, 8 ET/PT, ** out of four) by occasionally pulling back to show us a happy crowd watching the same film we are. It’s a cute trick at first, but like this new Rocky, it wears thin, in large part because organized spontaneity is a contradiction in terms.
That sanitized corporate appropriation of crowd-sourced anarchy is the hallmark of a production that turns a once defiantly counter-cultural musical into something quaint and mainstream. This Fox remake is briskly staged and competently done, but it's haunted by a sterility and a forced cheerfulness that goes against the show's grain.
The story remains the same. On a dark and rainy night, straight-laced fiances Brad (Ryan McCartan) and Janet (Victoria Justice, in the role played by Susan Sarandon) wander into a castle hosting the annual Transylvanian science convention. As the guests dance to the Time Warp, Brad and Janet meet Riff Raff (Reeve Carney), Columbia (Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford), Magenta (Christina Milian) and, briefly, Eddie (Adam Lambert).
Still, the castle's most famous resident is the host, that "sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania," Dr. Frank N. Furter — played to a legendary "t" in the original by Tim Curry (who cameos as the narrator) and now, Laverne Cox.
As Frank goes, so goes Rocky — and it doesn’t go so well.
Cox gives a buoyant, appropriately outsized performance that sometimes works on its own terms, but seldom works for the material. There was an edge and squalid danger to Curry’s performance that's lost when you cast Frank as a beautiful woman. (Even the famous fishnets now look like a high-fashion statement.) The ambiguity remains, but the raunch is gone.
Even so, Rocky is neither a travesty nor a disaster. Even miscast, Cox is engaging, as are most of her co-stars — and they do a fine job with the numbers you remember best. It’s hard to imagine anyone forming a cult around this version, but then, that’s what critics said about the first one.
And we know how that turned out.