New Line Theatre's production of Bat Boy keeps us wickedly entertained while evoking archetypal themes. We begin in a cave, where three young souls plumb the depths of our collective unconscious and emerge with the Bat Boy, a combination Dracula/Ugly Duckling/Phantom/Edward Scissorhands/Elephant Man. I kept thinking, "This is so familiar" and "I've never seen anything like this" at the same time. We know this story: It's Eliza Doolittle with big ears, a subhuman creature "educated" and ultimately rejected by society. Betrayal, forbidden passion, family secrets -- it's the stuff dreams and dramas are made of, but Bat Boy brings it to us freshly killed and bloody, with unexpected style and humor.
Todd Schaefer as Edgar, the Bat Boy, does incredible physical and vocal work, capturing the movements, facial expressions and sounds of a bat. He's frighteningly inhuman and heartbreakingly innocent as he encounters the "Christian charity" of the residents of Hope Falls, Virginia (who cage and plan to kill him). His transition from nonverbal animal to articulate human being is believable and compelling. Schaefer's strong performance is matched by those of Deborah Sharn and April Lindsey as the mother and daughter who bring comfort and joy to Bat Boy's life. Sharn, as Meredith Parker, gives Bat Boy a human name and teaches him to speak. Her duet with Schaefer, "A Home for You," is one of the highlights of Act 1.
Lindsey, as teenager Shelley Parker, moves from taunting the "ugly boy" to friendship and love with Edgar, now a "lovely boy" whom she finds "more normaler than they." Shelly is the Belle of this bizarre Beauty and the Beast revision, and Lindsey's brisk portrayal is refreshing. The Gaston of this story is the towering Jason Cannon as Dr. Parker, Meredith's husband. Although he looks too young to be Shelley's father and his first song is a bit off-key, Cannon redeems himself in Act 2 when he and Sharn triumph in "Revelations," the musical, dramatic and sexual climax of the play.
A strong ensemble cast embodies the concept of transformation inherent in the story, moving nimbly between sexes and among a variety of characters. Nicholas Kelly has comic moments as Mrs. Taylor and blasts his way through the rousing gospel opening of Act 2, supported by the strong vocals of Brian Claussen, Stephanie Brown, Jeffrey Pruett and Angela Shultz. Colin DeVaughan, as Bud, King of the Forest, leads the company in "Children, Children," easily the funniest orgy you'll ever see, staged by director Scott Miller as a kind of Lion King meets Deep Throat (I promise you'll never look at stuffed animals the same way again). Miller keeps the show moving merrily along, smoothing transitions and scene changes. He and the actors have worked hard to make the dense song texts audible; in a few spots, the words come too fast, but don't fret -- the important stuff is clear.
Bat Boy: The Musical was written by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, with music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe. It's licensed under an agreement with Weekly World News, the spoof tabloid that created the Bat Boy story. The mix of musical and dramatic styles is captivating; the show's only disappointing characters are the stereotypically stupid townspeople -- bumbling sheriffs, coal miners turned failed cattle ranchers, Christian hypocrites. They're easy targets, and the humor seems stale. The main story and characters are so complex and fresh that these two-dimensional characters seem as if they've wandered in from a less worthy musical.
New Line Theatre's production of Bat Boy The Musical is profoundly theatrical, asking audience members to imaginatively participate in an unexpected journey that's thrilling, scary, funny and thought-provoking. The singers are backed by live musicians (for once St. Louis has outdone Broadway) who rock with the Bat and roll with the cows.
No real animals were harmed in the making of this musical.
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