For years, Aaron Kopec has been terrifying audiences with haunting Halloween shows at the Alchemist theater — tales of paranormal horror, devilish dealings and general terror. That all ends this year. Kopec’s declared this fall’s Halloween show will be the theater’s last, and they’re going out with a bang.
“We wanted to do one more,” he says. “We wanted it to be big and splashy and fun.”
So, of course, he picked The Rocky Horror Show.
The comedy-horror classic about unsuspecting newlyweds who stumble onto the home of a mad transvestite scientist will wrap up the Halloween series and the season, running through October.
It’s a big shift for the company in more than just its tone. Prior Halloween shows have been written by Kopec and usually took audiences throughout the nooks and crannies of the Alchemist space, while Rocky is a cult classic being brought in fully formed. But, Kopek says, this is a show he and his cast have wanted to do for years, and director Erin Hartman (who also plays Janet) has managed to make it more than just a step-by-step recreation of the film version.
“We all love the movie and you can’t help but do homages to the movie … but don’t expect the movie version if you come to see this,” Kopec says. He and Hartman looked at the text and songs with fresh eyes and found different but valid ways to present the material. “If you love the movie and want to see the movie, there’s a place in Milwaukee where you can do that. … This is something new.”
Among the changes is a new way of looking at Dr. Frank N. Furter, portrayed by Nathan Wesselowski, who says it’s been important to divorce himself from Tim Curry’s iconic performance in the film. “There’s no way on Earth I was going to be Tim Curry, so I had to come to who Frank N. Furter is through me,” he says. Part of his interpretation includes a literally towering performance — he’s a tall man made even taller with platform shoes. He doesn’t have Curry’s visual “glam,” but Wesselowski tries to project that quality through his vocals. A trained operatic tenor, he sails off into the stratosphere with some of Frank’s songs.
The other big shift is Hartman’s insistence on bringing out the moral messages of the show — something she thinks is often lost beneath the thick layers of schlock and camp that usually paint the musical. “Instead of just saying ‘we’re crazy,’ to actually figure out why you’re crazy is important,” Hartman says. “Even the shittiest production (of Rocky) ever made is probably one of the most fun things you can possibly sit through. But it’s important to give it the credit it deserves.”
Kopec says part of the trick to their success in rehearsal thus far is that everyone in the company is equally passionate about the material. The actors are not purposely “superfans,” but sort of accidentally so. “You might not be obsessed-obsessed, you might not own a costume of one of the characters, but it is one of those weird shows where, once you get it, you get it,” he says. “It gets under your skin.”
Between it just being Rockyand it being the last Halloween show, Kopec says audience expectations are high. He’ll dress the theater and lounge in a fashion similar to prior immersive productions, although on a much smaller scale. He says Rocky’s a big enough show without all that.
Je wants the show to be a fitting send-off to the Halloween series. “It’s a good one to go out on,” he says.
After Rocky closes, Kopec says the theater will just host rentals for a few months, while he figures out what’s next for the Alchemist. Until then, we’ll just have to wait with antici…pation.
‘ROCKY HORROR’ STORIES
Rocky Horror usually doesn’t provoke a lukewarm reaction, whether you take a positive or negative stand on it. So it’s no surprise that the brains behind the Alchemist’s production have strong feelings about the show — and some good stories. WiG asked director Erin Hartman (playing Janet), actor Nathan Wesselowski (playing Frank) and technical director Aaron Kopec (a former Eddie, in Off the Wall’s 2004 production) to tell their Rocky Horror stories and explain why this musical has such a hold on them.
Erin When I was a kid, we weren’t allowed to watch R-rated movies. My parents were very conservative about that. But every Halloween my dad would rent us scary movies. All of a sudden, one day, he came home and goes, “I think it’s time. I rented Rocky Horror.” … I was just starting to get into musical theater anyway and it blew my mind. As weird as it is, Rocky Horror was like, “All right, you guys are almost adults now.” It was a concession to us. It made you feel responsible and all these other things. It’s one point in my life I can pinpoint where I was like “that changed me.” My parents had a shift. I had a shift. … I went to Madison — because it’s the best state school and I got in — I went to Madison without touring the campus, because they had one of the longest runs of Rocky Horror and I thought any place that does that, I’m going to be OK.
Nathan I grew up in a small town — it’s a refinery and manufacturing town and also a farming community in central Kansas. And the very first time I saw this was on Halloween, the fall of ’87, when I was 17. I had not seen anything like that. I remember I was so into the movie — because it was so different and interesting from anything that I had seen — but then I got irritated by all the people yelling stuff because I wanted to see the movie, you know? And I didn’t understand this tradition at all. So that was my introduction. But then I think what solidified it for me was after my parents’ divorce and (my mom and I) moved to Washington, D.C. I was in an acting class at the Arena Stage and a bunch of us went to one of the local spots. And then I understood. I think I can pinpoint from that movie, somewhere in there, is when I really started expressing myself in a different way. “Don’t dream it, be it.” That’s sort of what it was. Dreaming of being an artist and freeing myself up from all these constraints.
Aaron I knew very little. I was aware of Rocky Horror. My sister was a fan. But I had never even seen the movie. I was at Off the Wall and Dale was casting the show and he knew that I could sort of sing — enough to possibly play Eddie. He offered me the role and I went to a rental store — we do recall what those are — and rented a DVD and watched it. It was the opening song, “Science Fiction/Double Feature.” It just sings about everything that I love. And I knew. I didn’t even care about the “Don’t dream it, be it.” Because the movie does give you permission to be whoever you want. It has this great message that’s hidden in all its weirdness. But just the opening song alone. I thought, “This is my thing. This is clearly written by someone who loves everything that is Aaron Kopec.” It was great.
The Rocky Horror Show runs Oct. 1-31 at the Alchemist Theatre, 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Milwaukee. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at thealchemisttheatre.com.