Stage & Dance

From opera to musical theater, 'Rocky Horror' lead branches out

Christopher Baker says he has been a fan of The Rocky Horror Show since he saw it years ago at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Christopher Baker says he has been a fan of The Rocky Horror Show since he saw it years ago at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Lexington Herald-Leader

In 2007, Christopher Baker was auditioning for the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's production of Hotel Casablanca, and it wasn't going well.

He sang an aria from the Carlisle Floyd opera Susannah, and "they just kind of looked at me," Baker says of director Richard Kagey and composer Thomas Pasatieri.

Then Kagey asked if he had anything else.

He did — a little number called The Masochism Tango by Tom Lehrer.

"I had the whole judging table in stitches," Baker says. "Richard told me later, 'Chris, if you had not sung that, we would not have cast you.'"

And until now, that was the only precedent in Baker's Lexington singing career for what he will do this week: play the lead role of Frank-n-furter in SummerFest's production of The Rocky Horror Show. With the performance, he will add the "sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania" to a career that has consisted mainly of singing supporting roles in operas, and music by Bach and Handel at area churches.

Baker is hardly new to Rocky, though.

"I actually saw it as the play, first," says Baker, who grew up in the Southern Indiana town of Lanesville. He saw the production at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

"I don't remember any audience participation, but I remember sitting there thinking, 'This is just a crazy show,' and enjoying it. Then, two weeks later, we ended up seeing it at the Vogue," the Louisville movie theater that was known for its Rocky showings until it closed in the late 1990s.

And that started years of private preparation for this week.

"I can't tell you how many times I ... you put on the recording, and you just go with it," Baker says. "I have dabbled with elements of Frank throughout my life."

Rocky music director Meg Stohlmann, who has known Baker since 2006, when they started graduate school together at UK, laughs when told about Baker singing along to Rocky recordings.

"If he was doing that, it was behind closed doors," she said.

But she did know that Baker was capable of getting into a role such as Frank.

"Anyone who can sing The Masochism Tango like Chris does has some Frank in them," Stohlmann says.

She and Baker fit into director Wesley Nelson's vision of a Rocky Horror production that has a dark edge and an emphasis on strong singing.

"A lot of productions of Rocky Horror you see, people just kind of talk-sing it," Nelson says. "We didn't want that. We wanted people who could really sing these songs."

And Baker can really sing. He initially had an interest in musical theater, but he discovered that opportunities for low basses were somewhat limited.

"It's practically non-existent," says Baker, 40. "In the heyday of musical theater from the mid-'40s to mid-'60s, you have bass roles being written for singers. And Stephen Sondheim does. But in the past few decades, everything had been written for high voices."

Early in his education as a singer, a teacher pushed Baker to explore classical material, and he took to it, finding that he liked it more than musical theater. That's not to say he didn't like musical theater, and he has continued to look for opportunities in productions.

"I feel like I can dig my teeth in a little bit more to the more classical stuff," Baker says. "At the same time, I don't have the opportunity to step outside the box that this role is allowing me to, to have fun with that other side."

Approaching Rocky, Baker reflexively thought that he would go out for Dr. Scott, the character who helps to foil Frank's evil plans. But on his audition sheet, he also wrote, Frank-n-furter.

That caught Nelson's eye.

In auditions, Baker came across as a bit more operatic than he needed to be, but Stohlmann assured Nelson and choreographer Jenny Fitzpatrick that Baker could adjust to Rocky's rock vibe. And they say he has, embracing an important goal for the production.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, as most people know, an iconic midnight movie that is seen repeatedly by fans who come to showings dressed like characters and acting out the film in front of the screen. In the original stage productions and the movie, Tim Curry defined the character of Frank.

"I have told the cast, 'Stay away from the movie,'" Nelson says. "I'm really happy with how Chris has created his Frank. It's unique, it's original and authentic, but it's not Tim Curry.

"We had several strong possibilities for Frank. But in the last call-back auditions, he really came in and claimed that role."

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