Fox aired The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again last Thursday, and it was immediately obvious that the effort was poorly thought out. This Rocky Horror update joins the ranks of recent televised musicals like The Sound of Music and Grease, but unlike those shows, this one was pre-taped without a live audience. The participants never really commit to the musical, and the resulting remake is just a half-assed update of a cult classic.
This new version of Rocky Horror closely follows the story set out by the original. Brad Majors (Ryan McCartan) and Janet Weiss (Victoria Justice) are a wholesome and naïve 1950s-era couple. They have a blowout on a rainy night while going out to visit Brad’s old professor, so they seek shelter in a nearby castle, where they’re exposed to a group of alien goth/glam weirdos. Riff-Raff (Reeve Carney), the butler, and Magenta (Cristina Milian), the maid, invite them in. Annaleigh Ashford plays Columbia, another one of the assistants at the mansion, and its master, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, is played by Laverne Cox, taking over the role Tim Curry made famous.
The musical’s most obvious issue lies in the casting. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, the original Janet and Brad, were masters at conveying a kind of dazed innocence. Sarandon had a constant look of puzzlement to her face that ratcheted up the comedy and made her shock at the depravity of Frank-N-Furter’s lab more palpable. Justice’s face is a blank void, projecting nothing. McCartan never manages to reach the level of masculine bluster that Bostwick achieved as Brad. This version of the musical also refuses to allow its characters to be as repulsive as the original. It’s obvious that Riff-Raff, minus the makeup and terrible hair, is probably an attractive man. Richard O’Brien was able to pull off the ghoulish look in the film version, which gave him a sense of menace and danger. Milian’s Magenta is terribly overacted—she flies right past camp into ridiculous histrionics.
Cox’s Frank-N-Furter is simultaneously the best and most unfortunate part of Do the Time Warp Again. She’s more dedicated to the role that her colleagues, and she’s able to pull of many of her songs. But it’s when she’s not singing that she runs into trouble. Cox uses a horrible approximation of an English accent. Presumably it’s meant to mimic Curry’s accent in the original, but she sounds horribly amateurish. Still, the real blame lies with director Kenny Ortega. A more skilled director would have advised Cox to drop the accent, rather than allowing such a travesty to be recorded. It’s an embarrassment to Cox that it was even allowed to happen.
There’s also the complicated question of sexuality and transgressiveness to consider. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was unabashedly queer and campy. It was designed to puzzle and offend certain audiences. But so much of Do the Time Warp Again has been sanitized to rob it of what was once so scandalous and exciting. Younger generations have been raised to believe that a transgender woman should be treated just like any other woman, so there’s nothing transgressive about Cox, unlike the cross-dressing Curry. In the final scenes, Cox even sheds her spiky red wig for the standard golden locks that she wears in real life, which would have been the equivalent of Curry putting on a businessman’s suit for the finale. Another possibility is that the director and those involved with casting the film viewed Cox as a more otherworldly and unnatural figure than much of the audience will. If so, it’s just more evidence of the inability of transgender actors to be taken seriously.
Let’s Do the Time Warp Again uses the original Rocky Horror screenplay by Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman. O’Brien wrote the original musical, and much of his score is similar to the earlier film version of the musical, although it has acquired a Glee-like sheen in the current production. In fact, the whole performance doesn’t look too dissimilar from an episode of Glee. There’s never a sense that we’re actually in a decrepit castle—the production designers haven’t even bothered to put fake dust and grime on the walls. Frank-N-Furter’s lab might as well be a set built in a high school gymnasium. This wouldn’t be as obvious with a musical filmed in front of a live audience. There’s an energy and excitement that comes with having an actual audience. Some people will tune in just to see if the performers will mess up, and there’s a constant level of anxiety about failures that heightens the emotional impact of the musical. Without an audience, Do the Time Warp Again is completely inert in its sterile sets. Since the musical was broadcast on network television, it also had to sacrifice the nudity and more sexual moments of the original film. This is a Rocky Horror for kids, who were never its intended audience.
Most of the current batch of televised musicals have failed, but Do the Time Warp fails even more spectacularly. Grease and Peter Pan are beloved by fans of musicals (perhaps wrongly), so there’s a certain logic to resurrecting them. But Rocky Horror has always been embraced by a niche audience. In trying to make it work for everyone, Fox ensured that it would appeal to no one.