I should say right off the bat that when it comes to portrayals of The Rocky Horror Show, I have extremely high standards. I’ve been a devotee of Montreal’s Rocky Horror tradition since I was first allowed into screenings of the film adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, at sixteen.

I attended the Halloween Ball at the Imperial, the Medley, and The Rialto until disability and a few bad experiences since they permitted the sale of alcohol at the ball. I switched to the annual musical show at the MainLine Theatre.

I know every single callback, am quick to come up with original heckles, and even had the soundtrack to the original London stage musical on CD until time destroyed it.

That said, in the spirit of fairness, this review of Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show will be split into two parts: the first will be for people who have never experienced it and want to know what to expect, the second will be for the massive cult of Rocky Horror fans with specific expectations.

For Rocky Virgins

If you love camp, don’t hate musicals, and are a fan of fluid portrayals of gender and sexuality, Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show is for you. Dr. Frank n’ Furter, played Stephanie McKenna, is your sassy highly sexed mad scientist, who has been in the role for years and plays the part well. Aly Slominsky as Janet is the textbook prissy virgin all but begging to be initiated sexually by a skilled partner, and Cat Preston nails the sultry maid, Magenta. Craig Dalley as Eddie is every bit as sexy as a leather vest and jeans wearing biker can be, though when he plays Dr Scott, his German accent falters on occasion.

Do not expect anything remarkable or understandable about the plot, that’s the nature of the play: more style than substance, so allow yourself to shut your brain off and enjoy it. If you can’t, this might not be the show for you.

If you appreciate good music, then stick around, the band and musical direction, by Émilie Versailles and Katharine Paradis do an amazing job bringing Richard O’Brien’s timeless catchy tunes to life. If you love to heckle, you’ll love this show, as heckling is encouraged, but do not throw anything on stage or you will be ejected.

Though the actors’ mics were glitchy, and drunken rowdy audience members – most likely planning to go to the postponed Halloween Ball – often attempted to derail the performance, the cast took it all with grace.

If you want diversity in your shows, you will be happy to know that the cast includes people of all different sizes and genders, but those preferring visible diversity will be gravely disappointed, with this reviewer noting only one actress of colour among the entire cast, and they were not in a major role. Whether this will change in future runs remains to be seen.

If you’re a little curious and looking for the fun and escapism director Amy Blackmore promised, check out Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show at MainLine. It’s adult Halloween entertainment at its finest.

For Rocky Horror Devotees

This year’s show is a remount of MainLine’s Theatre’s last run in 2019 before COVID-19 health restrictions and that needs to be taken into account when watching it. They didn’t bother holding auditions this year, asking much of the previous cast to come back and sadly production quality suffered for it.

Zachary Sykes played Brad far too manly, giving us not the dorky sexually confused Brad we all expect, but your stereotypical cis man. His singing was fine, but his portrayal desperately needed hamming up.

Stephanie McKenna’s Frank n’ Furter was excellent as always, but I was hoping she would sex it up a little more than she has in the past, though the physicality she brings to the part is always breathtaking.

Megan Vera Starling’s Riff Raff is fine but the moment the actress breaks into song, she also breaks character, turning from the creepy Igor-inspired butler to sultry diva and it is completely inappropriate for the role.

Columbia, played by Genevieve Pertugia, tap danced well and had all the cuteness her part required, but she seemed to lose her voice on several occasions and might have been better rapping her lyrics instead of singing them.

This year’s Rocky, played by Vin Barbisan is, as Amy Blackmore promised, a completely different take on the character in terms of gender, which is good. However, Rocky is the one character in the show that has clear physical requirements, and Barbisan was clearly struggling through the three pushups they did on stage. Future casting choices should be able to do press-ups well and with confidence or be encouraged to train until they can.

Sarah Kulaga-Yoscovitz was excellent as the Usherette, as was Aly Slominsky’s Janet, Cat Preston’s Magenta, Kenny Streule’s narrator, and Craig Dalley’s Eddie, though his Dr. Scott could use a bit more silliness.

The real stars of the show for me were the band, the choreographer, the floor show dancers, and whoever was responsible for making Riff Raff’s weapon at the end. As an occasional prop designer, I marveled at the beauty of it, a far cry from the recycled plastic pitchfork Richard O’Brien’s Riff Raff wields in the movie.

This year’s The Rocky Horror Show at MainLine wasn’t a bad show, but die-hard fans will find it lacking. It satisfied my need for a Rocky Horror fix, but just barely.

The show is starved for new blood, better casting, and more ethnic diversity. Here’s hoping next year’s is better.

When it comes to Halloween for adults in Montreal, there is no tradition more sacred than Rocky Horror. For over twenty years, the city has featured two ways to get one’s Rocky Horror fix every October: The Halloween Ball at the Imperial, and Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show at the Mainline Theatre.

The Halloween Ball usually featured a costume contest, followed by an interactive screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with actors pantomiming on stage at the same time. The Rocky Horror Show at the Mainline is quite a different beast, with actors acting, singing, and dancing the musical play that lead to the movie.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2019 and both events were cancelled, with the Mainline’s show going on hiatus for nearly three years. The organizers of the Halloween Ball tried to make up for public health measures with an online screening, but their charging full price admission kept people away.

Though public health restrictions have mostly been lifted, the Halloween Ball has been postponed until September 2023, so people will have to go to the show at the Mainline to get their Rocky Horror fix. Regarding demand, the ticket sales are proof enough, for the Mainline run sold out before its premier on October 20, 2022.

I’ve been a Rocky Horror devotee since my mid-teens. For me, a social outcast, the events signified freedom from alienation where no matter how you presented yourself the cast and crowd were there to welcome you.

For the director of Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show at Mainline, Amy Blackmore, Rocky Horror represents home, nostalgia, and escapism:

“I think folks love that when you walk in and sit down you can forget everything else…I think that in our case we have fun with it, it’s campy, and above all, it’s the callbacks.”

For those who have never seen the show or attended the Halloween Ball aka “Rocky Virgins”, the callbacks are heckles in response to the actors. While throwing things is not permitted at the Mainline show, audiences are encouraged to use common callbacks you can find easily online, or invent your own. Blackmore encourages fans of the Halloween Ball and movie to see the live musical.

The Rocky Horror Show came first. They’re two different experiences but they’re familiar nonetheless….For anyone who’s never seen the live version, I highly recommend it because it can just augment your love and appreciation for Richard O’Brien’s work.”

Though public health restrictions have been largely lifted, COVID-19 is still very much part of life so I was curious as to how Amy Blackmore ensured the safety of cast and crew during the production. Blackmore welcomed the question, talking about the show’s regular hand washing and use of masks, only going without them during the week of the premier.

She spoke also of how health concerns affected the intimacy direction of the show, and how the floor show performers were reduced from the fifteen of past shows to seven, and their physical interaction with the audience was more limited. While audience members are encouraged to wear masks, the Mainline isn’t making it mandatory.

For regular attendees of The Rocky Horror Show at Mainline, myself included, I was dying to know what else had changed from past runs. Blackmore was coyly evasive.

“There’s definitely some fun new little secrets that’ll be revealed. What’s exciting is that we have decided to bring back most of the cast that we all love, Steph (Stephanie McKenna) as Frank, Megan Vera Starling who won the META Award for Outstanding Supporting Role in our production of 2018, and of course Kenny (Streule) as the narrator…We have a new Rocky this year, which I’m pretty thrilled about. It’s a different take! You’re gonna have to come and check it out! We can’t reveal all of our secrets!”

Though my love of Rocky Horror is unconditional, it saddened me to hear that the mostly white cast of past runs was coming back, especially given the ever present need for more diversity in all areas of life. Blackmore admits that because this year was a remount of the pre-pandemic show, they didn’t bother to hold auditions. She encourages people of all backgrounds to come out and audition for future runs.

Mainline presents Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show at Mainline Theatre from October 27 to October 31, 2022. Though the show is sold out, be sure to check out future runs!

Since the beginning of our collective Covid-19 nightmare, so many industries have struggled to stay afloat, perhaps none more than live theatre. After all, a big part of what makes taking in a show so special is the communal aspect of the experience.

There’s something therapeutic about sitting down with a bunch of strangers, listening to an overture and instantly being transported. How transported can one possibly feel, though, when just being in a crowd is cause for alarm?

Pandemics and live events simply do not mix. Thankfully, we seem to be easing our way out of the worst of it (touch wood), and as restrictions lift, Montrealers are slowly start trying to resume normal activities.

Are we really ready, then, to return to theatres? To sit amongst one another for over two hours and forget our problems? And crucially, are there any theatrical characters even capable of both reassuring and dazzling us?

Apparently, Jellicles can and Jellicles do. That’s right kiddies: CATS, the fourth longest-running musical in Broadway history is on tour and in Montreal this week, heralding a return to our habit of regularly playing host to popular Broadway shows.

Remember when Come From Away stopped by in 2019? Or The Book or Mormon in 2017? Remember how nice it was when we could expect the latest hit show from the Great White Way to swing by for a visit? Well, like a friendly tabby rubbing its nose against your elbow, this classic is back to remind us everything will be alright, and frankly, it’s not a moment too soon.

On the one hand, CATS is musical theatre comfort food in more ways than one. The show has a playful and varied score by none other than Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, with arguably one of the best musical theatre ballads ever as its crown jewel. It is also, of course, bursting at the seams with inventive choreography.

For this tour, the work of the late, great Gillian Lynne has been reimagined by Andy Blankenbuehler, meaning those who have seen CATS before can look forward to some slightly different moves this time around. There’s just something innately fun about watching dancers transform into felines right before your eyes, using little more than unitards, legwarmers, makeup and artistic expression.

For many, CATS has been a gateway drug to the magic of theatre and power of dance, so those experiencing it for the first time are sure to come away inspired. The show has a free-flowing narrative structure, having been based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and as such demands little more from those in attendance than a willingness to surrender to its unique tone. Bottom line, audiences of all ages tend to get a kick out of this one.

On the other hand, though, there can be no denying that the public’s love for the material has been seriously tested by the lingering stench of the 2019 film adaptation. It’s difficult to think of a recent movie musical more universally loathed by the masses (sorry, Dear Evan Hansen).

Instead of taking its cues from the stylized costume designs that first took the world by storm in 1981, CATS the movie tried to go literal and use visual effects to transform the likes of Dame Judi Dench, James Corden, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson into bizarre human/animal hybrid creatures. The end results were both laughable and disturbing.

The picture struggled to make its release date and then, after being rightly criticized for having shoddy CGI, sent out a modified cut with corrections days later. It was truly an unprecedented fiasco, and yet, it must still be said that director Tom Hooper was fighting a losing battle from the get-go.

CATS is one of those “out-there” concepts whose success depends entirely on the sensation of witnessing it live. People acting like cats up on a screen is not the same as people acting like cats around you in a theatre.

The suspension of disbelief is far greater when you know you’re being told a story in person and can feel the energy it creates. It also helps that at least in person, there can be no terrifying CGI blunders to take you out of the moment.

So all things considered, this tour is really serving two purposes. It will hopefully erase the flop film adaptation from our collective consciousness by reminding us what CATS is really all about, while also inviting us to return to our seats, so we can remember just how healing and joyful live theatre can be.

And it’s been a long time coming, considering this show was originally slated to entertain Montrealers in March 2020, only to be rescheduled for August 2020 and then delayed for an additional 18 months.

It’s a safe bet the energy from the audiences this week will rival that of the performers on stage, and why shouldn’t it? We’re overdue for some communal celebrating. Whatever new challenges may come in the weeks or months ahead, it’s definitely high time for the memory of brighter days to live again.

CATS runs at Salle Wilfred-Pelletier from March 8th to the 13th. Visit Evenko.ca or catsthemusical.com for ticket information

Given that it’s one of Modercai Richler’s most famous novels and a successful film starring Richard Dreyfuss, perhaps it’s not surprising that there have already been two attempts to mount a musical production of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. 

There have even been rumours of Broadway producers wanting to mount their own production. But it seems far more fitting that the latest musical adaption of an eager young Jewish entrepreneur from St-Urbain Street debuts in Montreal.

The expectations have been extremely high for this production. Critics across the country have been questioning whether Duddy is finally ready to sing, and whether this production will ever end up in New York. With the prestige of having music by Academy and Grammy award winner Alan Menken, and being directed by Austin Pendleton, it’s doubtful this latest musical adaptation will fizzle into oblivion.

Duddy Kravitz 2

The music is, without a doubt, the strongest aspect of the show. The story has been changed in certain ways that might bother die-hard fans of the novel. The songs meanwhile are guaranteed to please any musical theater lover. A Man Without Land/Leaving St-Urbain Street, Art and Commerce and The Final Hustle are all musical numbers on par with any great musical.

Sometimes it felt like the actors are just going through the motions. But, as Duddy Kravitz, Ken James Stewart gave an impassioned performance. His Duddy is more fiery and ambitious than the blundering hustler Richler wrote in his novel.

But with the tone of this production, that choice makes sense. Having a character be a miserable lout then burst into joyous song wouldn’t fit. The show definitely prefers a witty tone to a serious one, with most of the zingy one-liners falling on George Masswohl, who plays Duddy’s father Max.

In terms of singing, it’s Stewart’s co-stars that steal the show; Adrian Marchuk as Lenny and Marie-Pierre De Brienne as Yvette have the strongest voices in the cast. De Brienne shows her own star potential with numbers like Welcome Home.

If the production does become successful, it would be great to see more money be put into set design, as the current sets seem rather lackluster. So will this production ever end up in the city that never sleeps? It’s likely the show will continue a successful Segal Centre run if for nothing else than the sentimentality of having such a popular Montreal story brought to the stage. And while Duddy definitely can sing, its future success will depend on whether non-Montreal audiences connects to the show in the same way.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: The Musical plays at The Segal Centre until July 5th

* photos by Maxime Côté