A tabloid article spurs the inspired madness of Bat Boy: The Musical
By James MacKillop
In the 10 years it has taken to get here, the much-talked-about Laurence O’Keefe rock fest Bat Boy: The Musical has usually been classed as a cult musical. It began with a Halloween opening at Tim Robbins’ Actors’ Gang Theatre in Los Angeles and has thrived ever since around the edge, off-Broadway and in midnight performances. Sure enough, in its pre- Halloween opening at the remodeled Redhouse, 201 S. West St., the large new lobby was chock-a-block with under-30s in site-appropriate getups, young lovelies with Amy Winehouse-styled eye makeup. But a quick look at the packed house on opening night revealed yet another demographic: the musical theater buffs. It’s one show with two cults.
The darkness of the set, the ever-grinding machine for fog (really mineral water), the stamping-plant volume of the music, the cross-dressing and gross-out badgering of straights might give you the idea that Bat Boy is a smaller, louder version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Audiences arriving with a need for such a Rocky fix will be well-satisfied. But that other cult will also find much to delight them, like riffs on Sondheim, West Side Story and even My Fair Lady (no kidding!). For this audience Bat Boy is a scruffier, more subversive sibling of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ Urinetown. Not bad company.
Bat Boy feels like a gothic horror out of a sleazy supermarket tabloid, and that’s just what it is. The original news story of a half-child/half-bat found in a West Virginia cave appeared in the Weekly World News in 1992. Although the rag is no longer for sale, the licensing agreement with it is cited prominently on the title page of the program. Aficionados of lurid journalism remember the WWN fondly as the most outrageous thing to be found on the rack, the non plus ultra of a wild-eyed genre, miles beyond the Star, World or the celebrity-worshiping Enquirer. A blackand-white headshot of the actual creature (could it have been photoshopped?) sits prominently next to the stage to jog our collective memories.Part of the lure of camp, as Susan Sontag first defined it, is the hipster awareness that somebody, somewhere really loves and embraces the promise of the WWN story, so why not fulfill their darkest fantasies. Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming started with the original report, concerning a family of three spelunkers, two brothers and sister Ruthie (Riley Mahan), who come across the creature in the depths. It bites Ruthie and frightens all of them. From this Farley and Flemming extrapolate a lengthy continuing story, marked by astounding twists and a shocking, totally unexpected conclusion. Some of these include a life outside the cave and a plausible explanation of how he happened to be found there. These, of course, cannot be related here.
During five years of gestation Farley and Flemming recruited O’Keefe, who came up with both music and lyrics and has continued to tinker with the show ever since. After the 1997 Los Angeles opening it took four years to make it off- Broadway and another three to get to London’s West End, during which songs were added and subtracted. No song title list can be found in the program, and in a disservice to performers, it is not always clear who’s playing what, other than the leads. By checking the bios we can deduce that Riley Mahan is Ruthie and Brian Detlefs is her brother Rick, but no name is cited for the third brother Ron. Then again, that’s also what Bat Boy is like. Players might appear costumed in one role, then blend into the ensemble, and reappear a few minutes later, crossing age, class, gender and racial lines.
Dominating the action and never anonymous is Anton Briones in the title role, with high prosthetic ears and incisive teeth. An Equity player, Briones also directed Melissa James Gibson’s [sic] at the Redhouse in April. He boasts the hard physique of a bantam-weight bodybuilder and is enough of a gymnast to hang upside down with ease. In his first appearance he’s appropriately scary, but as he becomes domesticated—not an easy task—he can be a charmer with a robust singing voice. In a leap unanticipated in his opening scenes, Briones’ Bat Boy conjures up the makings of a romantic hero.
When one considers that Briones, with extensive national credits, has been resi dent at the Redhouse since last winter, we can see that the entire production would have been inconceivable without him.
Once Bat Boy is pulled out of the cave, there is some confusion about what to do with him. The spelunkers who found him think he could be exhibited as a freak, turning the hardscrabble town of Hope Springs (heavy irony) into another Branson. The wise sheriff, unsure if the creature is man or beast, delivers him to the local veterinarian, Dr. Parker (John Haggerty), who might have euthanized it until his wife intervenes. Meredith (Laura Austin), in a musical number titled “Christian Charity,” pleads for the boy. We learn she has been frigid and agrees to conjugal duties if the veterinarian will help. “I’ll do it, if you do it,” he agrees. After rejecting the name Montgomery, Meredith decides to name the creature Edgar. She comforts him with the song, “A Home for You.”
The Parkers’ willowy daughter Shelley (Joanna Carpenter) is disgusted to share her home with a freak, especially with his constant screaming and night calls. When Shelley’s boyfriend Rick, one of the spelunkers, threatens to kill Edgar with a knife in the song, “Watcha Wanna Do?” Shelley comes to the creature’s defense and asks Rick to leave. Even as town anxiety rises against Edgar because of dead cattle found in the fields, Shelley is driven to closer to him.
Given the West Virginia setting we should not be surprised that action shifts to rather gothic venues, such as a slaughterhouse where steel hooks hang from the flies. It is also the Bible Belt, and so much action shifts to a revival meeting that Edgar is forbidden to attend and instead charms with one of his best numbers, “Let Me Walk Among You.” Yet the pagan forest is also adjacent. Edgar and Shelley flee there and attend rites presided over by the great god Pan (Lucas Greer), who marries them. For this union the couple dons filmy loin cloths with well-placed fig leafs. Bat Boy: The Musical never runs short of surprises.
This two-week run of a double-cult musical feels like a turning point for Redhouse director Stephen Svoboda, who arrived last winter. The short runs of Conference of the Birds and The Metamorphoses pointed the direction, and here it is, with Zachary Orts’ dynamic musical direction and Marguerite Mitchell’s heated choreography. The Redhouse has now cut its own turf, and nobody else in town is going to tread upon it.
This production runs through Saturday, Nov. 5. See Times Table for information.