It's a no-win proposition on the face of it: How do you conceivably trump a performance like Tim Curry's Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which he reprised the role he originated in the stage musical? Or Kim Novak's iciest dark passion in the Alfred Hitchcock classic Vertigo? And if you somehow could, then should you? Or would that be breaking faith, not only with the originals but with a puzzled audience that's suddenly spending valuable show time asking, "Wait—was that the way it went?"
The questions are particularly germane in a month when four regional productions have been adapted directly from motion pictures or are forced to contend with major cinematic versions made sometime after their stage debuts.
By far the largest, the eager-to-please musical adaptation of the 2000 film Billy Elliot, closed the first dates of its new national tour last Sunday at Durham Performing Arts Center. Though Tracy Letts' BUG began as a stage play, the memorable version by Raleigh Ensemble Players, which closes this Saturday, follows after William Friedkin's critically acclaimed—but commercially ill-timed—film from 2006. The City Stage version of The Rocky Horror Show populated Raleigh Memorial Auditorium with costumed revelers—and horrified ushers—on Halloween weekend.
In the midst of these productions comes Vertigo, a stage adaptation by noted local actor Lucius Robinson of the 1958 thriller that's gradually come to be known as one of Hitchcock's—and the cinema's—best. Written for a class at UNC, Robinson's script impressed regional director Joseph Megel, who agreed to direct the work—and then cast Robinson in the lead male role of Scotty Ferguson, played in the original by Jimmy Stewart.
The resulting production has no shortage of effective moments. After an amusing "featurette"—a live "trailer" for Pig Men of the Martian Moons, an ersatz sci-fi take on The Odyssey—ensemble members race across and above the Swain Hall space to the tilting strings of composer Bernard Herrmann's main theme. This comes before they enact the gracefully eerie choreography of Leah Wilkes and Elizabeth Phillips, which suggests what one of the necktie scenes from another Hitchcock film, Frenzy, might have looked like had '60s choreographer June Taylor gotten her hands on it.
Robinson conveys the deepening obsession of Stewart's character, the retired police detective hired by a shipbuilder to keep tabs on his addled wife, Madeleine. But while Marie Garlock's dark, honeyed voice indicates close study of her predecessor, here this gifted actor oddly bears a closer resemblance to Joan Crawford—an interesting achievement—than she does to Kim Novak in the role of the shipbuilder's wife.
An ensemble of six fulfils a number of roles here, from the waves in San Francisco Bay to the portraits in a room whose eyes always follow you. They also suggest a Greek chorus, the judgment of society and voyeurs who, like the audience members, occupy a somewhat more morally ambiguous space.
Unfortunately, for most of the show this group is delegated the task of repeating particularly portentous lines of dialogue—a cliché from readers' theater that does this work few favors. Occasional flashes in ensemble performance include the triplicate portrayal of hairdressers and the fateful falls of several characters from Rob Hamilton's minimal, multistory set pieces. These are sometimes used to create memorable stage pictures, but their kludgy handling elsewhere resulted in a disappointing final scene last Friday. The company has indicated that this scene will be changed in this work-in-progress before the production resumes Thursday night. Let's hope the revamping conveys why Hitchcock's film concludes on the chilling note it does.