The composer behind Meat Loaf’s 1977 “Bat Out of Hell” (more than 43 million albums sold worldwide) and 1993’s “Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell” (five and six times platinum in the UK and US) has forever trafficked in a boldly theatrical brand of Wagnerian rock with a schlocky seventies-era Springsteen edge to the proceedings. That means restless youth, carnal knowledge, a love of cars, and singing in loud, Heldentenor voices, about the ins-and-outs of said obsessions.
It’s well known that Steinman actually began writing “Bat Out of Hell” as “NeverLand,” a rock opera based on the Peter Pan fairytale. Guessing that the J.M. Barrie estate wouldn’t care for this libidinous teen fantasy, the composer held onto the concepts of lost boys without mothers and ageless sprites in love with aging paramours. Then, he added vague dollops of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” “The Wall,” and every Roger Corman movie ever to his musky version of make-believe, creating a dystopian, rawk-n-roll vision of the year 2030 when teen lives are frozen, parents go to extreme lengths to keep their daughters close, and everyone wears bandanas, studded belts and uses lots of Aqua Net.
After premiering in 2017 in Manchester and Toronto, with an extended 2018 run at London’s Dominion Theatre in the West End, “Bat Out of Hell – The Musical” lands Off Broadway at New York City Center with more questions than answers, as many negatives as there are positives, and more awkward choreography than “Footloose” performed by a pack of drunken hippos.
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The main questions are: Why is this all happening? How did these people get so angry? And why does the just-tuned-18-year old Raven (Christina Bennington) seem to be made of Jell-O?
Steinman’s flimsily coherent but occasionally gripping script begins in Obsidian, a Gotham City of the mind ruled by a Trump-like businessman “dictator” (so reads the protest signs outside Falco Towers). Rather than explore that hot-button plot point, though, director and author alike turn the troubled tycoon Falco (Bradley Dean) into a spittle-spouting madman and an overly concerned dad/frustrated lover with a drunken, disillusioned wife, Sloane (Lena Hall). (Dean and Hall pretty much steal the show, but more on that later.)
Falco wants to destroy the underground tunnels populated by The Lost, a tribe of 18-year-olds once living in an adoption home (a fact all-but-whispered in the second act) then frozen in time due to some chemical warfare mess caused, or provoked, by Falco in the first place. The tribe is led by Strat (Andrew Polec), a sinewy, Pan-like poet whose every action and reaction is played by Polec as if he’s a wide-eyed silent film star.
Everyone in The Lost adores and protects Strat, including long-legged double agent Zahara (Danielle Steers) and Tink (Avionce Howles). That the latter is an obvious nod to Barrie’s Tinker Bell could be stirring but only winds up weird, thanks to Tink’s homoerotic tension with Strat and his raving jealousy toward Raven, who, in looking for a life beyond her tony bedroom and pampered life, finds hard guitars, Gothic refrigerator-magnet poetry and heightened passions with Strat. (Forget that the Tink subplot goes nowhere. Few plot points go anywhere.)
Even as we race through the break up, then the make-up of Falco’s family, the push-pull of Raven’s reluctance to go all the way with her new man, a killer motorcycle accident that isn’t, and a finale that turns Falco into a member of ShaNaNa, you have to give up puzzling out the plot in order to find the pleasure in this overheated, overstuffed giant “Bat.”
And the pleasures are there. You just have to wade through the maddeningly mawkish choreography (by Xena Gusthart) and the weirdly distracting decision to make Bennington wriggle and writhe like a jellyfish through every scene.
Even despite that, Bennington is a dazzling and sensitive vocalist, whether running harmony with Polec — a mighty, intuitive tenor in his own right — during the majestically melodramatic “Making Love Out of Nothing at All,” or crooning alone, lost, while hugging her metaphorical motorcycle jacket during the pillowy soft “Heaven Can Wait.”
Polec only gets one true solo moment to shine — the hammily dramatic opening number “Love and Death and an American Guitar.” However, the wiry actor with the wild blond hair and always-open mouth is the boisterous center point of every ensemble song he’s in, whether it’s the racing “All Revved Up with No Place to Go/Wasted Youth” or the Phil Spector-like booming of “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night).”
One of “Bat Out of Hell”s best vocal jousts also winds up as a handsome gender twist. Usually sung by a man to a woman, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” is here sung by Zahara (Danielle Steers), soulfully crooning this sex-not-love song to her man, Jagwire (the equally forceful Tyrick Wiltez Jones).
The show’s true showstoppers, however, are Hall (a Tony Award winner for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and Bradley Dean (“The Last Ship”). Their Sloane and Falco are like the bickering Bundys from “Married with Children,” only hornier and with so much more to lose. Meant to represent the lost passion of youth and the detritus of a crumbling love affair, the pair inventively tackle the sensualist “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and the forlorn “What Part of My Body Hurts the Most” with genuine gusto.
The design team (set designer Jon Bausor, lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe and video designer Finn Ross) does equally apppealing work. The use of Falco Tower’s epic height, its Batman-meets-“Metroplis” feel and the constant, hand-held, live video work — jitteringly capturing everything from Sloane’s emotional changes in her boudoir to the tense activity in the underground tunnels to the inner workings of its characters’ minds — gives “Bat Out of Hell” a nervous energy and a worthy gravitas. It’s just a shame that its script couldn’t do the same.