This was probably the best of the crop of live television musicals up to that point. It probably isn’t as good as Hairspray Live, given that it doesn’t live up to its source, but to be fair, that source was a pretty hard one to top.
Apart from importing a few lines from the audience participation script into the actual show and reinserting the stage version’s final song, “Super Heroes”, the script is almost dogmatically faithful to the original screenplay. Indeed, given today’s politically correct world and the pressures generally placed on primetime television, I was amazed at how much of the transgressive debauchery that made up the original plot was unapologetically retained in the finished version.
Much was made of an actual transgender actress, Laverne Cox, playing Frank N. Furter, but I tend to judge these cases solely on an artistic level. Fortunately, Cox more than passes muster on that front. If she doesn’t equal Tim Curry’s original (which, let’s be honest, no-one will ever do), she still has all the evil charisma and twisted sex appeal to be worthy to fill his shoes, and that alone is more than you’d expect from practically anybody.
The supporting cast are equally excellent. If I had to lodge any criticism, it would be that Reeve Carney and Christina Milian as Riff-Raff and Magenta, while certainly capable enough, are a bit too normal compared to the terrifyingly weird Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn in the original.
But several of the performances actually improve on the ones in the first film. Ryan McCarten is much more likable as Brad than Barry Bostwick, although I suppose you could debate whether that’s really a good thing given that being unlikable is essentially the point of Brad’s character. But Annaleigh Ashford is a much more human and touching Columbia than ‘Little’ Nell Campbell’s hyperactive cartoon, and Victoria Justice is indisputably a huge improvement on Susan Sarandon in singing, acting, and even looks.
Ben Vereen is, to be frank, a far more interesting Dr. Scott than Jonathan Adams, and, in a nod to the show’s legacy, Tim Curry plays The Criminologist, providing a sense of gravitas that is at least equal to Charles Gray’s original. And Adam Lambert is a natural choice for Eddie, given that he is modern Pop’s closest equivalent to Meat Loaf, albeit thinner and prettier.
This may not equal the legendary project on which it was based, but it did as good a job at recapturing what made it work as anyone could possibly expect. It’s often helpful to think of these TV adaptations of musicals that are already famous on film as revivals, rather than remakes, and if this were a stage revival, it would be the best we’d gotten since the Tom Hewitt Broadway revival back in 2000.
Certainly it did a vastly better job than any previous live TV musical except perhaps The Wiz Live, and that one was dealing with a much more minor classic whose earlier film adaptation had been an unmitigated disaster. This one, on the other hand, chose source material that seemed impossible to improve on and even pointless to attempt to duplicate, and if its reach to equal the original ultimately exceeded its grasp, its frankly astounding quality serves as a reminder of the benefits of reaching for the impossible.