Every year, around Halloween, audiences pack into theaters to see “The Rocky Horror Show” (1975). Richard O’Brien’s musical, beloved by generations of fans who attend both live performances and screenings of the film, is known for its cult following. Audiences often play an important role in the show, calling out lines and sometimes shouting ad-lib responses to performers. If you’ve ever seen “Rocky Horror,” you’ve witnessed this infectious energy. It’s no different at Central Square Theater’s production of “Rocky Horror,” running now through Nov. 26 in Cambridge.
The story begins when young sweethearts Brad (Michael J. Mahoney) and Janet (Emma Na-yun Downs) get a flat tire during a road trip and seek refuge in a mysterious castle. They’re greeted by the castle’s inhabitants, including butler Riff Raff (Max Jackson), maid Magenta (Matti Steriti) and groupie Columbia (Nico Ochoa). Finally, they meet the house’s owner, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Sebastian Crane), a cross-dressing mad scientist from the planet Transsexual who shares his latest creation with them — a muscular man named Rocky (Jack Chylinski).
The Central Square production, directed by Jo Michael Rezes and Lee Mikeska Gardner, leans into the campiness of “Rocky Horror.” The show is a celebration of queerness and self-expression, and the majority of the production’s cast identifies as transgender, queer or non-binary. By centering queer and trans voices, Rezes and Gardner find something new in the perennial favorite, making a strong case for the show’s continued stagings.
“Rocky Horror” sometimes lacks a coherent plot, instead relying on a narrator to guide audiences through the story (especially in Act Two, where the narrative gets lost in the shuffle). In this production, narrating duties are split up between Jacques Matellus, who also plays Dr. Scott and his nephew Eddie, and Zoë Ravenwood, who sings and plays guitar in the production’s three-piece band. Ravenwood’s charismatic narration keeps audiences engaged, and the band, led by music director Jack Cline, has a ball with the music. Actors play instruments alongside the band, adding to the show’s joyful sonic landscape.
Mahoney and Downs make a compelling couple, and Downs stands out especially for her portrayal of Janet, who transforms from an innocent ingénue into a confident young woman. Her vocal prowess is on full display in “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me,” a hilarious number in which she seduces Rocky. As Frank-N-Furter, Crane commands the stage with a wonderfully unhinged energy and a powerful voice, and Chylinski plays Rocky with a lovely boyish charm. However, the standout performance comes from Ochoa, who steals the show every time they walk on stage. As Columbia, Ochoa balances their role as an ensemble member with their talents as an individual performer, bringing unmatched enthusiasm to their performance.
Ilyse Robbins’ choreography is dynamic and lively, even with a small nine-member cast. Rezes and Gardner’s direction allows the cast to fill the space and play to the audience members surrounding three sides of the thrust stage. Audience members get involved too, with handouts that tell them when to call out lines and use props at key moments in the performance. Allison Olivia Choat’s set design creates Frank-N-Furter’s laboratory with a whimsical backdrop full of gadgets, but leaves the rest of the stage looking disappointingly bare in comparison. Leslie Held’s terrific costume designs, especially for Frank-N-Furter, Rocky and Columbia, bring the characters to life onstage and help to welcome audiences into the weird and wonderful world of the show.
While some of the show’s design elements lack the complexity of a big-budget production, Central Square’s “Rocky Horror” makes up for its simplicity with some clever gimmicks, like rolling desk chairs in place of a car, and drumsticks to simulate the sound of tap dancing. And these design choices only add to the campy vibes of the production, reminding audiences that you don’t need fancy designs to put on a great show.
If there’s one thing that makes Central Square’s “Rocky Horror” stand out, it’s the innate feeling of joy that radiates from the production. The cast members and musicians inject a sense of fun into the show that will make you want to do the time warp again and again, even after you leave the theater.