Get your 'Horror' up close and personal

Why should we see "The Rocky Horror Show" live, when the more celebrated cult movie has been available for 36 years? Are there reasons - other than supporting butt-busting local actors, of course - to spend five times as much as a DVD rental and three times the cost of a shadow-cast "re-enactment" at a monthly midnight screening?

There are. To be precise:

-- The gritty authority of a live band can't be duplicated by a soundtrack. The buzzsaw energy of the quartet at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte turns that venue into a club; songs are greeted not only with applause but howls of approval. (Jeremy DeCarlos plays guitar; Gina Stewart's on bass, Matt Curl does percussion; music director Ryan Stamey handles keyboards.)

-- You suddenly realize the musical numbers have catchy melodies. Susan Sarandon's beleaguered Janet squeaks and squeals in the movie; Meghan Whitney belts those songs at ATC, playing with the lyrics instead of struggling to get them out. Mason Reich gives vocal heft and emotional weight to Brad, justifying the country-style lament excised from the film.

-- Actors make different, sometimes more interesting choices. Calvin Grant's Frank-N-Furter is less ironic and more genuine in his feelings than Tim Curry's campy film version. His "I'm Going Home" at the end is a soulful plea now, not a weird joke.

Jonathan Coarsey's Riff Raff is sinister without being merely creepy. Marvin King's Rocky has pathos to go with the beefcake. Emily Hunter's Columbia and Raquel Novo's Magenta are more easygoing company than their movie counterparts, and all of them sing at least as appealingly.

-- Choreographer Tod Kubo and director Chip Decker do a lot with a little: Four intrepid Transylvanians stand in for the movie's big chorus, and this quartet - Alex Aguilar, Michelle Presley-Harkness, Devin Nystrom and Rachel Esther Tate - prove you can be silly and sexy at once. (In fact, all the performers do.)

Are there drawbacks? Of course. Ghoulish Eddie (Rory Dunn) can't break through a wall to sing "Hot Patootie," so his entrance is weak. (Dunn has more luck as Dr. Scott, motoring around in a Seussian wheelchair.) Frank-N-Furter's death scene, robbed of the film's length and grandeur, sputters to a tepid close.

The set isn't intentionally cheesy, like the film's. It's merely humble to the point of malnourishment. Yet these shortfalls don't stay in the memory, and the sizzle does.

Wednesday's preview audience was caught up enough to stay respectfully attentive, only occasionally lobbing ad-libs during Kevin Campbell's straight-faced narration. He seemed to expect those and deflected or ignored them peacefully, then joined the cast - and a fair chunk of the playgoers - onstage for the final "Time Warp" reprise.

Hey, there's another reason long-time fans ought to watch "Rocky Horror" in person: For the first time, they can see the narrator really has a neck. That's the mark of a classic: However often you dip into it, you can learn something new.