London, August 1973. Married less than six months, my husband and I strolled down Kings Road, blissfully in love with each other and with youth. Craftsmen on the street sold gold rings with artful designs, buskers played haunting ballads on weather-beaten guitars. We came upon a theater, brightly lighted, where actors in Frankenstein and werewolf outfits stood guard outside. My husband knew I loved scary movies and assumed I would feel the same about scary drama, so after seeing the title of the production, he said, "You'll like this! Let's buy tickets."
We went inside, paid our money, and entered the small theater. More monsters stood stiffly along the walls. Then they suddenly came to life and threw us A along with several other patrons A into our seats. I was perplexed, a little frightened, and excited. What type of new theatrical experiment was this?
It was the original stage show of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
I will never forget a detail of it. Although the movie, made two years later, went on to become the first authentic cinematic cult phenomenon, it was a pale shadow of the stage version. Blasted into my brain forever is the sight of Tim Curry waltzing around in black lingerie, garters, sheer nylons, and high heels, gyrating without shame or convention to the brazen rock sounds of Richard O'Brien's inspired score. Here was a musical even a hippie could love.
There are not many nights at the theater I remember as well. I've sat through good shows, bad shows, plays with little wit, with mediocre actors, with great sets, with no substance, and so on. But the few that have left an indelible mark A Amadeus, Dancing at Lughnasa, Burn This, and Speed the Plow in New York; The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Homecoming in London; Tru in South Florida A never fail to remind me why I fell so deeply in love with that startling, goose-bump-producing artistry achieved only through live performance.
I now have a new night to add to this selective list, thanks to the Actors' Playhouse. The show is called Prom Queens Unchained and it's every bit as original and jubilant as the stage version of Rocky Horror; it also has the potential to achieve the same cult status. Although the camp musical form is nothing new these days A consider the success of Little Shop of Horrors and Angry Housewives among others A none has equaled the excellent writing and crafty humor of Rocky Horror until this production (originally off-Broadway) of Prom Queens came along.
Much credit must be given to director David Arisco for guiding and staging the show with a clear and very creative vision. Even the paintings that make up the set, done by Michael Thomas Essad (and which I won't spoil by revealing their contents) suggest that a tremendous amount of thought and talent went into this final presentation of the company's season. The large cast is also uniformly superb, both in vocal and acting skills, and it would do them a disservice to single out any one performer for praise. Unfortunately this column does not contain enough space to applaud all sixteen actors individually, though they each richly deserve it.
Prom Queens Unchained is the ludicrous fable of the graduating seniors at Robert Underwood High School (R.U. High). It is the spring of 1959, the age of complete innocence, when the Red scare was in full force, when teenage pregnancy was a fate worse than lethal injection, when juvenile delinquents committed no greater crimes than skipping school and slinging spitballs at the principal, and when the selection of prom queen was the high point of a female's life.
As with the best absurd musicals of this genre, things are not exactly what they seem to be. One of the students is an extraterrestrial. The cheerleader tries to win the crown through attempted murder. A female beatnik carries the child of a dead folksinger, whom she tries to bring back to life via a ritual that makes use of his severed fingers. The principal enjoys being whipped by a reform-school girl. And the eerie janitor sweeps all dust, events, and memories into a vat he calls his "dustbane," rumored to possess supernatural properties.
The action revolves around the four girls nominated for prom queen: chubby goody two-shoes Cindy, dizzy beatnik Carla, vicious cheerleader Sherry, and rebel slut Louise. Together with their boyfriends, teachers, classmates, and families, they cause unbelievable comic havoc in the week leading up to the prom and at the prom itself.
There is another layer to the artistry of this play. Both Rocky Horror and Prom Queens, between the lines, offer sly social commentaries on life. Not all camp comedies accomplish this delightful combination of the witty and the witless. For instance, the physics teacher is insane (weren't they all?). The alien is named Venulia from the planet Venulia in the galaxy Venulia, and speaks with a Russian accent. Grant Cassidy, the conceited jock, automatically becomes prom king for building "a three-piece Edwardian bedroom set in shop class." Sweet Cindy's mother is devoted to being Donna Reed though she secretly wants to cut loose and be Donna Rice with the gym teacher.
The setting -- just before the explosive 1960s -- allows for some dark humor in portraying teens the way they were, so harmless compared to today's truly perverse student body. When the theater audience is called upon to stand and recite the pledge of allegiance, a torrent of memories rushes back A of a cheerier time when the worst thing that could happen in high school was a bad case of acne or breaking up with a steady, not being gunned down by an AK-47 outside the cafeteria.
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First and foremost, Prom Queens Unchained is delicious, unmitigated fun. With unforgettable characters, sharp dialogue, and beautiful melodies by Keith Herrmann (who also composed the music for the more traditional Romance, Romance), this show is money well spent, an evening at the theater that cannot be duplicated on film or video. You may even come out humming songs such as "That Special Night," "Corsage," and "Squeeze Me in the Rain," which is more than I can say for the mundane score of Miss Saigon.
The Actors' Playhouse production of Prom Queens Unchained is undeniably a work of art, which is why I'm adding it to my short list of the best shows I've seen. Of course the story is ridiculous and is played purely for laughs. But who ever said that art had to imitate torture?
Under the auspices of the Theatre League of South Florida, the first annual Stages of the Sun Theatre Festival is now up and running from May 15 through June 15. During this time audiences can purchase a festival membership card for as little as $25 and receive major discounts on festival offerings at theaters throughout Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Also included for special rates are events such as the ninth International Hispanic Theatre Festival and an ongoing program of works in progress (sketches, skits, and full-length plays) presented at various locations. For more information call 375-4634.
For a schedule of works in progress call 547-5414, ext. 251.