The new Off Broadway musical “Bat Boy” is making theatrical history in at least one respect: Surely this is the first show to take the stage “licensed under agreement with Weekly World News.”
For those unaware that Elvis is alive and well and living with the love child of Marilyn and James Dean on Mars, the Weekly World News is one of the more over-the-top tabloids available for amused gaping at less reputable supermarkets everywhere.
Inspired by a story in the paper, “Bat Boy” concerns the discovery in a West Virginia cave of a half-human, half-bat creature, and the attempt by a semi-dysfunctional family to civilize the poor beast before the townspeople, more bloodthirsty than the creature himself, can get their hands on him.
Unfortunately, a quick flip through an issue of the Weekly World News may provide as much overall amusement as “Bat Boy.” This musical spoof is flecked with moments of inspired humor, and it features a blazing, stylish performance by Deven May in the title role, but it simply isn’t clever or accomplished enough to sustain interest for more than two hours in a relatively sizable Off Broadway theater (and for a top ticket price of $55).
The tale is primarily a vehicle for the authors’ merciless ribbing of the conventions of musical theater of recent vintage. Whether your least favorite musical is “Rent,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Jekyll & Hyde” or “The Lion King,” “Bat Boy” has a chortle or two for you.
After a brief scene depicting Bat Boy’s discovery in the cave, the show opens with a deliberately inane anthem taking off on the propulsive pop-rock idioms of “Rent.” Head mikes in place, wearing mud-colored streetwear, the cast sings a song whose chorus runs thus: “Hold me, Bat Boy/Touch me, Bat Boy/Help me through the night./Love me, Bat Boy/Save me, Bat Boy/Make it turn out all right!”
The lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe, who also wrote the music, have some sharp edges and bluntly funny jokes, but generally the level of wit or lyrical precision is not particularly high (see above).
The show’s prevailing tongue-in-cheek attitude allows O’Keefe to have it both ways: When the lyrics are clever, as in an elaborate scene sending up “My Fair Lady,” they earn one kind of laughter; when they are insipid, as they often are, the author get laughs from their intentional dimness.
O’Keefe is an able composer. He has dissected the overwrought mannerisms of composers Andrew Lloyd Webber, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Frank Wildhorn and knocks them off with impressive flair, but one brooding “Phantom”- or “Les Miz”-style ballad or dewy love duet was enough to make the point.
And the question inevitably arises: If you are suspicious — or cynically contemptuous — of the power of musical theater to seriously convey extremes of emotion, why are you writing a musical?
The show’s book should not be scrutinized too closely. It mostly trots out familiar caricatures: the uptight housewife, the Southern backwoods bigot. Bat Boy’s transformation into a tea-sipping, English-accented dandy is the most inspired idea — the romp “Show You a Thing or Two,” in which Bat Boy displays his instantly acquired erudition, is the score’s brightest moment. But in general the sophistication of a Charles Ludlam, or “Forbidden Broadway’s” Gerard Alessandrini, for that matter, is sorely missed.
May is nonetheless funny, mildly touching and exciting to watch in the intensely physical central role, and he has a powerful, assured singing voice, too — in fact, he could lose the bat ears, don a mask and step right onto the stage of the Majestic Theater. Also impressive are Kaitlin Hopkins as Bat Boy’s protective mom and Kerry Butler as his paramour.
Under Scott Schwartz’s punchy direction, the rest of the cast keep themselves busy with camp mugging and laborious onstage costume changes meant to earn their own laughs. But this kind of gimcrack stagecraft — most prominently displayed in the “Lion King” spoof, featuring cheap stuffed animals blatantly manipulated by the cast — loses a lot of its goofy appeal when it’s just a comic affectation.
“Bat Boy” began life at L.A.’s tiny Actors’ Gang Theater, where budgets are indeed low, and the show’s slapdash construction presumably was easier to enjoy. In a much larger theater, with a much larger budget — the massive phalanx of spotlights rivals any on Broadway — “Bat Boy” requires more indulgence than a discerning audience is likely to give it.