By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Bat Boy just wants to be loved. Is that so wrong? In the creepy, funny, disturbing Bat Boy: The Musical, now playing at Theatre Three, a feral creature emerges from the depths of a West Virginia cave and tries to find his place in the world. With pointy incisors and a pair of peaked ears, teen-age Bat Boy is freaky-looking, but wicked smart. Smarter than the local yokelry, it turns out. Yearning for acceptance, he reaches out to them at a revival meeting, and they make him feel about as welcome as a fever in Toronto.
And everybody sings.
The half-boy/half-bat character created by the wily editors at the Weekly World Newssupermarket tabloid inspired the cheeky creators of Bat Boy: The Musical. The show aims to be a Rocky Horror-style send-up of every B-movie and Broadway extravaganza starring a misunderstood "other." There's some clever showbiz spoofery in the book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, and the bouncy tunes and witty lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe get so many laughs that the audience misses half the zingers.
Bat Boyisn't subtle. Its title character is an amalgam of some of the great geeks in showbiz history. Slurping blood for sustenance, Bat Boy is a young Dracula without the cape. Craving friendship, he's Frankenstein's monster without scars. Wooing his ladylove, he's Phantom of the Opera minus mask, Beast sans dancing teapots. Hooked to the ceiling by a wire, he's Peter Pan. Caged like the Elephant Man, Bat Boy shrieks, "I'm not a boy! I'm an animal!" When the veterinarian's sympathetic wife teaches the homely critter to read, Bat Boy, renamed Edgar, suddenly enunciates with a prissy English accent, thanks to BBC language tapes. Here he mocks monstrous old Henry Higgins and his breakthrough with Eliza Doolittle, crowing, "By George, I think I've got it!"
And by George, he's right in more ways than one. About the only aspect of Theatre Three's production of this musical that has "it" is the great performance by Robert Brewer, the actor in the leading role. The rest of the show is plagued with a battery of problems. Without Brewer, sad to say, this Bat Boy would be guano.
But young Brewer, making his professional debut, is so good he almost makes up for the show's numerous shortcomings. He sings sweetly, even while suspended upside down in his BVDs, as he is in the big Act 2 love song, "Inside Your Heart." He shows impressive acting chops, too, playing Bat Boy as seriously as other young actors might portray Romeo. Brewer keeps it real--or as real as he can wearing glued-on bat ears and fake vampire teeth--and he's careful not to let his character turn tragic, menacing or too cartoony. The innocent look in Brewer's eyes makes this Bat Boy lovable. He's vulnerable and deliciously funny, even when he's chomping on a bloody cow head like some preppy chupacabra.
Playing it straight is important in a show this weird. Bat Boy: The Musical takes nothing seriously, daring to tweak taboo topics such as incest and bestiality. But when actors play to the silliness of the material and resort to winking at their own goofy characters, as too many of the Theatre Three cast members do, they spoil the fun. Only two actors in this cast--young Brewer and Paul Taylor, playing the drunken, psychotic vet who wants to kill the pointy-eared kid--avoid commenting on their own performances. That allows them to succeed at remarkably subtle characterizations while everyone else in the cast vaults over the top into loonyland.
The unevenness of the acting is just one of the bugaboos in this up-and-down production. With the exceptions of Brewer and Taylor, director Kyle McClaran has assembled a large group of weak singers. In the major role of the vet's wife, Meredith (who also turns out to have a secret relationship to Bat Boy), Jana McGill couldn't hit the right note with 10 pounds of buckshot. As Shelley, Bat Boy's beloved, Megan Elizabeth Kelly sings in a painfully nasal, Kristin Chenoweth-y pitch that could etch glass. Real bats in caves all over Texas can probably hear her. Dan Evers, as Shelley's boyfriend Rick, and Tom Lenaghen, as the hick town's numbskull sheriff, don't even try to sing; they just croak-talk their songs. Kevin Haliburton, as the revival preacher, ruins the gospel-style Act 2 opener "Joyful Noise" by singing spectacularly off-key.
At least McClaran didn't make these vocally challenged performers wear the dreaded head-mikes. In a space as small as Theatre Three, the last thing the audience needs is rotten singing amplified to deafening levels.
On the technical side, Penny Mauvais' set, a diagonal swath of wooden planks and corrugated tin, evokes a nice backwoods eeriness. Big mistakes were made by the lighting and costume designers, however. Mike Garner's lighting plot is unforgivably dim in many scenes, and actors disappear in the choking mist from an overzealous fog machine. And once again, Patty Williams' costumes aren't ugly-funny; they're just ugly. What is it with Theatre Three and the cheap, shiny wigs and flimsy shmattestheir costume shop inflicts on actresses in show after show? Arise, lady thespians! Refuse to wear anything that makes you look like 50 pounds of taters tied up in a 10-pound towsack.
Now, onto the orgy scene, because what is a show about a blood-drinking bat child without a barnyard sex romp? Using visual references from Cats and The Lion King, the writers of Bat Boy: The Musicalsatirize the piousness of those creature-features by throwing an all-animal sex party for the mid-Act 2 song "Children, Children." After Edgar is liberated from his cage, he is driven into the woods by a torch-wielding mob of redneck townsfolk who blame him for unexplained cattle mutilations. Under a full moon, Edgar and Shelley are serenaded by the god Pan (Morgana Shaw). As the couple dance erotically in the woodsy mist, half a dozen farm animals (actors in leotards and fuzzy masks) creep around them and engage in full-on, slow-motion cock-a-doodle-don'ts that include some crazy cross-species threesomes. As a send-up of the be-whiskered fuzzy-wuzzies in child-friendly Disney musicals, this scene should be a scream. But the action is so X-rated, the copulating fauna look more like The Joy of Sex meets Animal Farm. Thank heavens for that overactive fog machine, which spares the audience too close a look at the graphic clucking and sucking.
Once that horror is over, we are rewarded with the best song in the show, Edgar's solo after he leaves Shelley and goes off in search of a bloody snack. In "Apology to a Cow," which clearly was inspired by Stephen Sondheim's score for Sweeney Todd, Edgar tells the severed head of the dead animal why he had to kill her:
I'm sorry, friend, I have to.
I know, I know, it's rude.
I shouldn't work my problems out with food.
Here again young Brewer soars, making this song, bizarre as it is, an absolutely heartbreaking ballad. It's this show's twisted version of Cats' "Memory." Edgar, all alone in the moonlight, chewing on cow head and ruefully ruminating.
Of course, at the end of this monster-needs-love tale, Edgar and the townsfolk call a truce and embrace each other's differences. He also finds out who his real parents are and what scientific experiment by the evil vet caused the mix-up that resulted in Edgar's unusual birth defects. He does not find love. Turns out he and Shelley are a little too closely related for that. In the finale, the characters, living and dead, return for a reprise of the show's biggest number, the rockin' "Hold Me, Bat Boy."
Flawed but fun, Bat Boy is worth seeing for the theater-insider jokes and Brewer's terrific performance. Based on his fine work in this show, this young man's career in musical theater is just a bat's squeak away.
Theatre Three has announced its next season of shows, all chosen for their iconic status as works for the stage. The Agatha Christie thriller The Hollow opens the 2003-'04 season July 10. Larry Gelbart's Sly Fox, adapted from the classic Volpone,follows in August. After that, it's Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession in October. Best title on the lineup looks to be Claudia Shear's take on Mae West, Dirty Blonde, which had an award-winning run on Broadway last year and will come to Theatre Three next March. Call 214-871-3300.