The Weekly World News ceased publication last year, leaving supermarket checkout lines eerily bereft of the updates on the latest activities of space aliens, Satan, mermen, Elvis, and Bigfoot. One the most memorable staples of the tabloid's outlandish cover stories lives on, however, in song.
Bat Boy: The Musical premiered at Tim Robbins' Actors Gang Theatre in Los Angeles in 1997, five years after the half-human, half-bat child was reported found in a cave, but still some years before he ran in the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election. With a book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming and songs by Laurence O'Keefe, who most recently created Legally Blonde: The Musical, Bat Boy went on to become an off-Broadway and West End hit.
TheatreWorks' 2003 regional premiere enjoyed a smash extended run in Palo Alto and was followed by smaller productions around the area by San Francisco's Ray of Light Theatre and Concord's Willows Conservatory students.
Alameda's Altarena Playhouse is the latest to take it on, and one could hardly think of a finer choice for the seventy-year-old community theater than a musical that includes both an Evangelical revival meeting and an interspecies orgy presided over by the great god Pan and sees its tender-hearted hero chowing down on a bunny, a cow head, and maybe the townsfolk if they get him riled.
Three spelunking teenage siblings stumble upon the chiropteran chap as he crouches in cutoffs in his cave in rural West Virginia. When Bat Boy bites Ruthie, the youngest (played with macabre aplomb by sixth grader Olivia Hytha), they capture him and bring him to veterinarian Dr. Parker to be put down. But Parker's wife Meredith and daughter Shelly decide to keep him in a cage and civilize him, naming him Edgar. He learns quickly, both his Ps and Qs and to be anguished over his lust for blood. Unfortunately, the town council, preoccupied with cattle disappearances, is far slower to learn to accept Edgar.
Performances among the large cast are a mixed bag, but Alex Rodriguez is fantastic as Bat Boy, from his monkey-like crouching, climbing, hissing, and spitting in the beginning to his mincing chortles after he quickly becomes highly cultured. His puzzled reactions and attempts to communicate in wordless ululations and hocking noises are hilarious.
Lisa-Marie Newton is radiant and strong-voiced as chirpy housewife Meredith Parker. Katie Behnke is charmingly peevish as tarty teen daughter Shelley Parker, going from polishing a banister suggestively to falling in love with the pale, pointy-eared kid with fangs. Co-director Paul Plain is appropriately melodramatic as Dr. Parker, jealous of his usually distant wife's attentiveness to the feral newcomer. Noah Haydon is a charismatic, glitter-nippled Pan, and Jonathan Reisfeld is super campy and cartoonish as revival healer Rev. Billy Hightower and cig-chomping trailer matron Mrs. Parker.
Played in the round on an atmospheric cave set of stalactites and stalagmites, Angelo Benedetto's production is a bit rough around the edges but high-energy and fun, with amusing pop-star choreography by Lisa Woods. Accompanied by a four-piece band perched in an alcove, directed by Joe Simiele, the songs are tackled energetically by the cast, although backup vocals sometimes overwhelm the lead ones, and some early songs by supporting players aren't quite up to snuff.
The show uses the versions of the musical numbers revised and in some cases replaced for the 2004 London production; the big love duet "Mine All Mine" is completely different from the old "Inside Your Heart," for example. Aside from a few duds such as the oft-reprised "Christian Charity," O'Keefe's songs are delightful and often very funny: the opening ensemble number "Hold Me, Bat Boy," the Parkers' passionate tango "Dance with Me Darling," the stirring gospel shout "A Joyful Noise," Edgar's plea for acceptance and odd jobs "Let Me Walk Among You," Meredith and Shelley's desperately optimistic duet "Three Bedroom House," and the pansexual bacchanal "Children, Children."
The story is often hilariously grotesque, especially Edgar's twisted origin, but Bat Boy's quest for acceptance and self-knowledge is also inevitably moving and unexpectedly thought-provoking in some of its tongue-in-cheek scriptural allusions. (That too is appropriate to the source material, because the Weekly World News always loved to play fast and loose with new biblical discoveries.) It would be too much to call it a parable, but you would do well to consider the Bat Boy. As the opening song puts it: "Heed the tale of a filthy freak who's just like you."
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