- Gary Walker is half-human, half-bat in this campy musical romp.
The page-one news these days is pretty shocking. "CROP CIRCLES APPEARING ON PEOPLE'S HEADS!" "SECRET VIDEOTAPE SHOWS LIONS EATING CHRISTIANS IN IRAQ!"
Blissfully unfettered by the niggling requirements of truth, the supermarket tabloid Weekly World News also has been running a long-standing series on the adventures of one Bat Boy, a half-human/half-bat supposedly found in a cave in West Virginia. You may just laugh at such pulp fiction, but Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming (story and book) and Laurence O'Keefe (music and lyrics) turned it into a campy musical romp that sends up plenty of straight musical theater in the process.
Bat Boy: The Musical, now performed with stupefying energy at Cain Park's Alma Theater, is a classic story of a physical misfit who yearns for acceptance. In this instance, the oddball is a pointy-eared fellow with vampire dentures and a dietary preference for warm blood (hold the meat). The show begins as spelunkers find the naked Bat Boy in a cave and haul him off to Sheriff Reynolds, played with wiry gusto by Patrick Janson. Eventually, Bat Boy is given to the town's vet, Dr. Parker (Scott Plate, doing an Andy-Griffith-as-Snidely-Whiplash turn), whose wife Meredith and teenage daughter Shelley promptly bat-bond with the bipedal rodent and begin teaching him to pour tea and wear a blazer.
All this takes place in the aptly named hick burg of Hope Falls, where out-of-work coal miners support themselves by raising cows on their rocky slice of the mountain. The show's creators have a good time shooting the fish in this barrelful of bumpkins, as the IQ-challenged locals try to protect their big revival meetin' from the horrors of Bat Boy, whom they blame for their ever-decreasing cow population. Soon, due to his ongoing education by the Parkers, Bat Boy loses his screech and is enunciating like Noël Coward (thanks to BBC language tapes, no doubt available in most decrepit Appalachian mining towns) and graduating from college summa cum laude.
Although the rural targets may be easy, O'Keefe's parade of songs is engaging as it zigs from rock to rap and zags between sweet ballads and foot-stomping gospel. Particularly effective are the catchy signature tune, "Hold Me, Bat Boy," and the Act One closer, "Comfort and Joy," which captures both the venom of the yokels and the tender yearnings of the title character ("I'll eat nothing but soy/To have comfort and joy."
The parodies of musicals fly fast and furious, from the extended operatic wails of Les Misérables to a hysterical Lion King homage featuring the entire cast, now sappy puppeteers, wearing stuffed animals attached to every conceivable part of their anatomies and singing "Children, Children." Virtually every scene is played and/or sung at a Spinal Tap-ish 11, but that's just fine in a production that is compulsively visceral and uncompromisingly confrontational.
Director Victoria Bussert has her performers wired for sound in more ways than one, as they dash, spin, dart, and occasionally hang around Russ Borski's black-on-bat set. The boisterous cast is led by the facially agile Gary Walker, who morphs from rabidly feral to finishing-school elegant as Bat Boy. The scene in which he learns to speak -- his guttural croaks evolving into words and syntax -- is a comic gem. Adina R. Bloom is doting as Meredith, although her powerful voice flatlines at times. Emily Krieger exhibits a fine whine as Shelley. Among the townsfolk, played by five gender-swapping actors, Fabio Polanco devours the scenery as the mourning mother of supposed Bat Boy victims and as the revival minister. Mitch McCarrell and Phillip M. Carroll transition instantly from sweetly baffled local gals to rough-and-tumble good ol' boys.
Tight-asses of any age may find this production's driving beat and harsh images a bit challenging, especially toward the end, as we learn of Bat Boy's parentage in a semi-graphic flashback. And, frankly, this show does have its warts -- including some repetitive melodic structures and a story line that wants to have it both ways: full-frontal parody and morality tale. But the infectious humor and electrifying pulse sweep all such concerns off the table. At one point, the smitten Shelley extends her wrist to Bat Boy's fangs, saying, "Spend your life on my arm. I'll be OK, I heal fast." It's a commitment well worth making, if only for an evening.