Theater Review: Bat Boy: The Musical
If the Bat Boy hadn't been born with pointy ears and fangs, he'd be just like the rest of us. Or so suggests Bat Boy: The Musical; now playing at the Skinner Barn in Waitsfield. Actually, there is one other important difference: He has to drink blood to survive. As with many horror stories before it, in this play the "normal" humans prove to be just as bloodthirsty, and emotionally needy, and in the end we are left with the classic question: Who is the real monster?
Probably the first musical ever inspired by a supermarket tabloid, Bat Boy is based on a "true" story reported in 1992 in the Weekly World News. It was first staged in Los Angeles in 1997 and debuted in New York four years later. The production garnered numerous awards and became an instant cult favorite. Director John Landis is currently in production with a film version of the musical, assisted by Farley and Flemming. Expect it in 2007. The robust rendition at the Skinner Barn, produced by Peter Boynton and directed and choreographed by Nick Corley, is a Vermont premiere.
Bat Boy: The Musical is part satire, part campy parody and part sci-fi, in the manner of Little Shop of Horrors. Like that production, this one benefits from compelling characters and clever dialogue, and is frequently punctuated with exuberant music incorporating rock, gospel and show-tune styles. And then there's that highly original premise. Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming (story and book) and Laurence O'Keefe (music and lyrics) recognized the potential drama - comic and tragic - and developed the Bat Boy story:
A half-boy, half-bat creature is discovered in a cave by three spelunking siblings in West Virginia; he is captured and taken to the home of Dr. Parker, a local vet, but not before biting one of the teens, who thereafter languishes in a nearby hospital. Mrs. Parker takes to the Bat Boy in a big way, dubbing him Edgar and civilizing him with tenderness and fierce possession. Their daughter Shelley, at first resentful of the "freak," eventually falls in love with him. To move things along, the uncommonly intelligent boy masters English and earns his G.E.D. in no time at all. That Mrs. Parker doesn't notice her husband feeding Edgar blood on the side is one clue to the couple's intimacy-free marriage.
Meanwhile, in the aptly named village of Hope Falls, the cows are dying of a mysterious affliction, and the town's reactionary, bumpkin residents are certain Bat Boy is to blame. They want his head - and they hope a revival-meeting preacher will somehow revive their fortunes as well as save their souls. By the way, some of the subtle parody in Bat Boy revolves around the concept of "Christian charity."
For the sake of anyone unfamiliar with the plot of Bat Boy, neither the surprise revelation - how the Bat Boy came to be - nor its ending will be revealed here. Suffice it to say that a lot of blood is involved. Parents, take note: If plays were rated like movies, this one would be PG-13, for some ruthless murders, creepy sexual innuendos and disturbing biting scenes. Despite the body count, though, Bat Boy delivers plenty of humor - the script is often laugh-out-loud funny - as well as genuinely poignant moments and rafter-shaking musical numbers.
As for Peter Boynton's Vermont production: The Off-Broadway pros couldn't have been much better than this cast. In part that's because half of the roles are filled by pros, and the rest by young actors who really can act, not to mention sing like nobody's business. Among the latter group are several Harwood Union High School students and recent grads who have worked with Boynton either in annual theater productions at school or in his acting workshops. One standout is 16-year-old Shaina Taub of Waitsfield. Though her two roles in Bat Boy are minor, she deserves kudos for stratospheric vocal power.
Boynton is a former TV soap-opera star with film and theater credits; since buying the Skinner farm 20 years ago, he has pain-stakingly transformed the 1891 barn into a venue for classes, plays and other events. For the past three seasons he has produced shows there under the nonprofit Commons Group umbrella.
In Bat Boy, Boynton plays Dr. Parker with aplomb, his initial affability gradually turning sinister. Classically tall, dark-haired and handsome, Boynton goes frumpy with glasses and rumpled vet-wear here. The first time he wields his oversized hypodermic, his casual disregard for life is shocking - we don't learn the reason for his moral decline until later in the play.
As Mrs. Parker the lovely Broadway actress Lauri Landry is spectacular. Though slender and delicately built, she meets the surprisingly physical role, and its psychological freight, with vigor and assurance. Her richly expressive soprano serves her well both in song and in her uptight, chirpy persona. In a production set vaguely in "the present," and which includes a hip-hop number and contemporary vernacular, Landry's June Cleaver get-up is slightly jarring. Until, that is, you realize the '50s attire, hairdo and repressed demeanor represent Mrs. Parker's emotional development, which froze, along with her love life, a long time ago.
Two other seasoned professionals turn in stellar performances in double roles. Ann Harvey is deliciously demanding as the town's mayor and the rude, redneck mother of the three doomed Taylor kids. Joe Garofalo, a New York stage veteran now active in Vermont's theater scene, easily inhabits both his inept sheriff and thundering preacher parts, and his big baritone still fills a room.
Blond-haired Micaela Mendicino, a St. Michael's theater major, shines as Shelley Parker, a role in which she blossoms from whiny teen to mature young woman bearing the weight of unspeakable loss. Her sweet voice is remarkably similar to that of the singer heard on the Bat Boy CD. Wagner College student Jake Smith is also commendable as Shelley's juvie boyfriend Rick Taylor; resembling a young Gerard Depardieu, he's got a unique, swaggering presence and a strong voice.
As the titular star of the show, Matt Bailey is riveting - even if he doesn't look anything like the creepy critter in the Weekly World News, with its huge eyes, long ears and razor-sharp teeth. Bailey is tall, broad-shouldered and perfectly nice-looking; he makes do with ear and incisor enhancements. But when found in the cave, he effectively conveys the trapped creature's terror with guttural shrieks and cowering body language. As he responds to Mrs. Parker's TLC, he evolves physically, intellectually and emotionally with fast-forward speed. In the scene in which Edgar morphs from illiterate semi-Chiroptera to erudite scholar, Bailey is hilarious and endearing - and proves to be a competent singer as well. Far-fetched though it may be, his transcendence is cause for jubilation among not just his new dysfunctional family but the audience as well.
But it doesn't last long. The tragedy in this black comedy strikes all too soon. Despite Edgar's touching, tearful plea for acceptance, and salvation from his bloodsucking ways, an evil intervention from Dr. Parker at the revival ensures that no one will come to a happy end.
James McNamara's set and lighting design are simple but effective. A low stage with spare props suggests the Parkers' home, a town meeting or a cave. A clever, multi-scene backdrop opens and closes like a triptych. Several fake Christmas trees stand in for woods.
Hidden from view behind a panel, music director Jono Mainelli plays keyboards and directs three other players - the live music is a treat and, at last Friday's show, was in perfect sync with the singers and just the right volume. Only one pitch problem in the first group number marred an otherwise outstanding musical production from beginning to end.
The Skinner Barn, painted a classic red and white on the outside, is a jewel in the verdant Mad River Valley - the views alone are worth the trip to Waitsfield. Inside, though, the post-and-beam construction does present two barriers to the sight lines: posts. Try not to sit behind them. The wooden folding chairs are hard on the bum after a couple hours, too. But these are teensy complaints; the rural Vermont venue is a summertime pleasure, and this production of Bat Boy is freakishly entertaining.