WILMINGTON — It’s been nearly eight months without live theatre in Wilmington — a time warp no one really wanted to face with Covid-19. Yet, Opera House Theatre Company and Thalian Hall are finding a way to launch Wilmington’s first musical since February, just in time for Halloween. The popular cult phenomenon “The Rocky Horror Show” will take place at the Thalian Portico, with the audience sitting outside in Innes Park, this Friday and Saturday night.
“We have all been closely monitoring the changes in government guidance, as far as Covid restrictions are concerned,” said Justin Smith, artistic director for Opera House Theatre Company. Smith also is directing the show.
“As time went on, it became evident an outdoor production was going to be most likely the first step in reopening,” he added.
Smith has produced “The Rocky Horror Show” five times in 18 years. It became a no-brainer to run with it on such short notice after Governor Roy Cooper decided to increase the amount of people that can gather outdoors at entertainment venues in Phase 3. It’s also a perfect pick for the season, as Rocky audiences have been known to dress up like the show’s characters, call back to the performer’s famed lines and sing along to the rock-n-roll score (“The Time Warp,” “Dammit Janet,” and “Sweet Transvestite”).
“Anyone who knows or has seen ‘Rocky’ certainly will have a different experience this time around,” Smith noted forthright. “Normally, this show is a wild and untamed grope fest. The challenge has been keeping those elements, while not allowing anyone to touch (or even come within 8 feet of each other). I am pleasantly surprised at how well the story is holding up. It’s my hope folks forget they are watching a show mounted during the times we are living in.”
“The Rocky Horror Show” follows newlyweds Brad Majors (Jordan Wolf) and Janet Weiss (Sydney Smith Martin) as they venture out one rainy night to visit an old professor. However, car trouble steers them to a nearby castle for help. What they happen upon instead is the Annual Transylvanian Convention—a hedonistic party led by the otherworldly Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Brendan Carter). In attendance are Frank-n-Furter’s minions, Riff Raff (Paul Teal), Columbia (Heather Setzler) and Magenta (Samanth Misfud), as well as a few others, like Eddie and his uncle, Dr. Scott (both played by Chandler Davis). They’re all awaiting the reveal of the mad scientist’s newest creation, Rocky (Mathis Turner). What ensues is a party of mutilated proportions—sometimes murderous and oftentimes primal in its sexuality and seduction.
“I had so much fun with Columbia last time I played her that I’m just excited to have a chance to recapture that,” Setzler said, referring to her 2013 City Stage performance. Recalibrating to Columbia’s signature high-pitched voice has been a challenge for the full-time actress, though one she embraces, especially since she hasn’t had stage time since March.
“Does singing show tunes to my cat count?” Setzler quipped.
Paul Teal will play Riff Raff, Magenta’s brother, who arrives on Earth as Dr. Frank-n-Furter’s servant. It’s a different role for Teal, who played Rocky during the last run of the musical. This time around he’s happy to be more covered.
“[I] rocked the gold speedo as Rocky,” he explained. “It’s nice eating more carbs and wearing more clothes in this production.”
The narrator, who helps guide the show at every quirky turn and dive, will be played by Shane Fernando, executive director of the Wilson Center. It will be Fernando’s first time appearing in “The Rocky Horror Show.”
“Justin wanted to have some ‘Shane’ elements in the narrator,” Fernando said, “so I’ve had a good time weaving [in] some of my own personality traits.”
Blocking the cast has presented a different challenge, according to Smith. Less space exists on the makeshift stage above the portico steps, which must fit a four-piece band, led by Chiaki Ito, and the performers. Everyone has to remain socially distanced as much as possible. Backstage, actors and crew are required to wear masks all the time.
It’s an important first step to make, according to Smith, to figure out how to move forward as a theater company. “It will educate us all on the comfort levels of the audience and cast and crew,” he said. “Quite frankly, we don’t know what to expect.”
“But the challenges are pushing us to explore and find other ways to show our connections,” Fernando added, “as we have all tried with our relationships in real life over the past months.”
Opera House usually produces six shows a year. It launched its season in January with “Las Cage aux Folles,” followed by “The Sound of Music” in February. It canceled the rest of the year’s shows in summer because of the pandemic. To make up for the financial loss, company actors have been hosting virtual performances on Mondays and helping with a few fundraisers for Opera House Theatre Company.
“This is not a sustainable business plan, nor is it our mission,” Smith said. “We are a live theater nonprofit organization.”
Smith said they’re taking every precaution to ensure it’s safe for audience members to enjoy their night out. Masked theatergoers will enter the musical as if they’re attending a normal indoor performance at Thalian Hall. They can buy concessions and will be escorted through the lobby and theater, before exiting onto the Princess Street side to take their seats.
“People will be allowed to sit in small groups but asked to remain socially distant from other groups,” Smith said.
“The Rocky Horror Show” will take place Friday and Saturday nights, Oct. 30-31, at the Thalian Portico. Showtime is 6:30 p.m. and tickets can be purchased at thalianhall.org.
UPDATE: Opera House added two dates, Nov. 7-8, to continue its run of “Rocky Horror.”
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