ST. PETERSBURG — Actor Matthew McGee has been studying not only his own lines but what he expects to hear from the audience in The Rocky Horror Show, this year's edition of American Stage in the Park. McGee plays Dr. Frank N. Furter, the "sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania" in the cult classic musical, whose movie version has been a staple of wild and crazy midnight screenings for more than 30 years. • "I want to be absolutely prepared because I will get a lot of callbacks," said McGee, referring to the audience participation that is central to the experience of the show. For example, in Sweet Transvestite, when Frank sings the lyric, "We could take in an old Steve Reeves movie," audience members who know the routine will call out something obscene about the celluloid muscleman.
"I found a script with all the audience callbacks, though people keep coming up with new ones that I'm sure we're going to hear," McGee said during a break in rehearsal, having lunch with two other actors in the show, Jim Sorensen and Alison Burns, who play the juvenile leads, Brad and Janet. When the couple's car breaks down on a rainy night, they stumble into Frank's Gothic mansion.
"I'm sort of remotely thrilled at the prospect of having a few hecklers," McGee said.
"With the audience participation, all bets are off," Burns said. "Traditionally, people shoot Brad and Janet with water pistols during the rain scene. I'm afraid we could be soaking wet."
"I do worry that we could lose control at any point," Sorensen said. "The crowd is going to be such an enormous part of it."
Karla Hartley, director of the production, has tried to get the cast ready for the onslaught. "For the last dress rehearsal, I asked people in to sit and scream at us," she said. "It's an exercise in concentration. What I'm asking the actors to do is to hold for the audience participation, take it in, let it happen, but don't engage with it, just keep with what they're doing."
There are differences between The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the play. For example, there is no dinner scene in the play, and Frank N. Furter doesn't deliver a toast, so the audience doesn't have an opportunity to toss a piece of toast, a staple of the movie experience.
In one aspect of audience participation, each performance will have onstage seating for 10 people who pay a premium price of $35 per ticket. The cast plans to have some fun with them.
"The folks sitting onstage better be ready," McGee said. "They better be ready is all I can say."
"They're guinea pigs," Sorensen said.
"Karla has given us free rein," said McGee, who will be decked out in outrageous regalia, complete with lace tights, corset and cape. "I have a whole section where I'm singing directly to them, sitting in laps, touching them. It's a 3-D transvestite experience."
Rocky Horror, written by Richard O'Brien (he plays Riff Raff in the movie), is sexually suggestive, to say the least, while American Stage in the Park is traditionally thought to be something of a family event, given its setting under the stars and picnic atmosphere on the downtown waterfront. Still, the past two productions, Hair and Rent, certainly had their provocative themes.
"People think Rocky Horror is dirtier than it really is," said Hartley, adding that she wasn't asked by the company to change anything in the show to tone it down.
"The audience callbacks are actually more vulgar than anything we ever say onstage," Burns said.
McGee doesn't think his performance as a pansexual, cross-dressing mad scientist will offend anyone. "I feel like there's a certain amount of fantasy creature to what I'm doing with it," he said. "I think kids will enjoy Frank in a strange way because I'm like a kid running around and having a ball."
Tim Curry originated the role, first onstage, then in the movie, and it's a daunting prospect to follow in the footsteps of his high heels. McGee first saw the movie in a Halloween showing on TV as a kid growing up in a small Georgia town.
"It's something I always wanted to do, but I was scared because of Tim Curry," said McGee. "People do think of Tim Curry when they think of Frank N. Furter. I try to play it differently. I try to give it more of a serious edge toward the end on I'm Going Home. I try not to make it as silly as it usually is."
McGee, a consummate comic actor, is known for his drag roles, such as those in The Mystery of Irma Vep or Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. However, Hartley thinks people may be surprised by his performance in Rocky Horror.
"Everybody is going to expect his comic timing, which is great," she said. "But there's also a real depth to him. We've been looking at what vulnerability exists in Frank N. Furter underneath all the lunacy."
Four years ago, Burns played Columbia in a production of O'Brien's musical at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (now the Straz Center), also directed by Hartley, and the Frank N. Furter in that show was all about sex and eyeliner. "The way Matt is playing him is very different, very real," she said. "What I am finding this time around is that there is an actual story along with all the shtick."
Music director Michael Raabe leads a four-piece band that is onstage and in costumes. "I think people are going to be surprised at how much of a rock show it is," said Raabe, who plays electronic keyboards. "Yeah, it's this crazy story, and there's a campiness to the movie, but we're rocking out."
The score does have some great rockers, like the Time Warp and Hot Patootie, sung by an ex-delivery boy named Eddie, played by Lulu Picart (Meat Loaf does it in the movie). But one of Raabe's favorite songs is a ballad, Over at the Frankenstein Place, performed by Brad and Janet and Riff Raff outside Frank's castle. He sees its message of acceptance as the theme of the show.
"It's about outcasts finding this place to fit in," Raabe said. "I love Over at the Frankenstein Place because it's a song of acceptance: 'There's a light in the darkness of everybody's life.' It's about finding a place where you belong."
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.