by D.L. Groover
The off-Broadway cult musical hit Bat Boy joyously swoops into Stages Repertory Theatre, and there’s no need to wave your arms over your head for protection. It burrows right under your skin in the most infectious way possible. When it’s over, you feel like flying.
This camp musical romp, written by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, with ingenious music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe, based upon those bogus “news” articles in the equally camp supermarket rag Weekly World News, is the spirited Pygmalion-like story of a half boy/half bat found in the caves of West Virginia. Brought up by the sensitive wife of the local veterinarian, little bat boy soon outclasses the yahoos and falls in love with the doctor’s daughter. What can’t be taught out of him, however, is his pedigree. His taste for blood is cause for alarm, and this classic outsider is soon blamed for all the town’s woes, as well as provoking the doctor’s jealousy over the motherly affections of his alienated wife.
This trailer-trash My Fair Lady has sniping references to Jerry Springer and Oprah and even Shane, and yet there’s room in this goofy spoof for it to be read as a parable of AIDS. This subtle undercurrent gives Bat Boy needed heft and much more heart than simple parody. The musical’s main message that even freaks need love, or “don’t deny your beast inside,” is pure Hallmark, but the telling of it is hip and cool Charles Addams.
The entire production—sharp as a fang and slick as a pool of blood—has magnificent vigor due to the exemplary cast and the prickly direction of New York theater import, director Brian Jucha. He gives the show true Broadway moxie. From the very first image of spelunkers descending by ropes from the flies, we know we’re in professional, capable, and loving hands. We’re in for a ride, and Jucha pulls out all the staging tricks to keep us tapping our toes and smiling at all the cleverness.
The ensemble performers are above reproach. As Bat Boy, Scott Sowinski (pictured)—another Broadway import—raises the bar. His performance, assured and polished, gleams. It’s riveting, full of showbiz know-how and a textbook case in how to hold an audience. Kara Greenberg, now living in L.A., returns to Houston for this engagement, and it’s about time. It’s wonderful to once more see (and hear) her own professional magic in the Donna Reed-with-an-edge role of doctor’s wife. In his Stages debut, Ben Grimes brings a punk muscular attitude to the daughter’s low-rent boyfriend, and we hope he stays in town—he’s a natural, a musical’s best friend. Jonathan McVay, last seen in Theatre LaB’s hilarious Top Gun! The Musical, fleshes out his local-yokel diptych of Bud and Daisy to perfection and then gets to stop the show as an ithyphallic Pan in the jubilantly obscene “Children, Children.” David L.J. George, as both bosomy country mama and gospel-wailing evangelist, huffs and puffs with the best of them, while Brandon Peters chills blood as the demented doctor. Erin Simpson seems more farmer’s daughter than doctor’s, and her edgy voice is not helped by the overly insistent amplification.
Someone please tell me: In Stages’ Yeager Theater, the size of a Christmas cookie tin, why amplify? You could easily take away the Madonna microphones from the exemplary cast, and no one would notice. They all belt their lungs out anyway, with voices carrying all the way out to Waugh. They don’t need electronic help. It adds an extraneous shrill layer that’s not needed—or wanted.
Bat Boy (through January 11) is an exemplar of contemporary musical theater. It shows what this much-decried form of entertainment is capable of. Though the show is not sung completely through, the music carries the plot forward, not the dialogue. Great hunks of exposition are described through songs. That’s what made Oklahoma so famous for its time—although everybody conveniently forgot all those preceding, old-fashioned operettas and grand Hollywood musicals that did exactly the same thing. And the music and lyrics of O’Keefe are grand indeed, covering the bases from gospel to rap to soaring anthems. It’s all easy, splendid listening.
Granted, Bat Boy is no Oklahoma, or even Rent, but there’s life, wicked humor, a cool sensibility, loads of laughs, and a big sloppy heart in it. Once it gets its teeth in you, it won’t let go. For that it should be celebrated—and, more importantly, seen.
D.L. Groover writes monthly on the arts for OutSmart magazine.