note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
First appeared in the Wayland Town Crier, Wayland, Mass.
"Bat Boy: The Musical," now playing at Beatrice Herford's Vokes Theatre, is a high-energy whirlwind about the sad result of a science experiment gone wrong -- a baby who, having been left to die, is rescued by bats and raised in a cave.
The show keeps audiences off-balance. Its campy narrative manages to insult everyone and everything from "present day" West Virginia to religious revivals, but it does so in a "don't get upset, I'm only joking" spirit that is liable to turn serious mid-lyric.
With its numerous intentionally mixed signals, "Bat Boy" is a blood-and-guts horror show cum raunchy farce that aims to leave playgoers with a solemn message. The message is "love your bat boy" -- love not only the strange outsider in your town, but also the subterranean, uncivilized beast that playwrights Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming and composer-lyricist Lawrence O'Keefe believe is lurking deep within you.
Despite the dizzying viewpoints, that one message comes through in several beautiful songs sung by performers mostly new to Vokes. For example, Meredith (Kimberly McClure), a housewife who despises her husband and carries a dark secret, tries to reassure the newly discovered cave creature with warmly empathetic lyrics: "Poor little person with eyes so sad, where in the dark did they hide you?" Later, a tame but still bloodsucking Bat Boy/Edgar (Michael Letch) pleads movingly at a revival meeting, "You're all so beautiful. I envy you your lives. ... I know I'm strange, so help me change. ... Let me walk among you. Let me show my face."
And in an especially breathtaking number, Shelly (Jennifer Powers) begs Bat Boy to "let me become part of you" as he fiercely tries to warn her off. Broadway fans who have been touched by that song ("Inside Your Heart") on WERS radio's Saturday morning program "Standing Room Only" but who are unfamiliar with the plot might be surprised to learn that the girl is offering her blood to feed the vampire-bat cravings Edgar has tried in vain to repress.
So many overtones! Hard to dismiss the vibes about lovers risking danger by mingling blood, vibes about people no longer hiding in cavelike isolation but accepting themselves and demanding acceptance from others. But we will restrain ourselves from mentioning the Oedipal theme of the boy abandoned at birth in the open air who grows up to kill his father and enjoy complicated relationships with his mother and sister. That would be over the top.
"Bat Boy: The Musical" begins when local yokels descend into a cave with eerily glowing walls (sets by Stephen McGonagle), as music reminiscent of "Phantom of the Opera" surges threateningly. At first they court the strange creature they find there, but when the Bat Boy bites one of them, they swear eternal enmity. The show moves rapidly back and forth among other settings -- a hospital, a family dining room, a slaughter house -- with characters taking on so many roles that one may throw on a wig and change his voice to a higher pitch and then switch back to the first character in the space of seconds. Men play women. Women play men.
An enthusiastic Bat Ensemble (Jessica Brusilow, Kathleen Dalton, Curt Degenhart, Kristy DiScipio, Joshua Quat and Devon Stone) literally climb the walls when not belting out their in-your-face, song-and-dance rock numbers. Actor Ben DiScipio flings himself with gusto into the role of Thomas Parker, mild-mannered veterinarian turned latter-day Sweeney Todd. Michael Parsons, Jennifer Bubriski, Emma Boroson, Daniel Rabone and Matthew Romero each tackle a variety of roles with schizophrenic abandon. And Wayne Fritsche is the sheriff who keeps changing his tune to get reelected.
Nancy Curran Willis, director, and Howard Boles, music director, keep all these balls in the air with rapid-fire timing. Choreographer Karen Fogerty makes creative use of the small Vokes stage. Michael Hirsch is both the designer of the highly varied lighting effects and the show's producer. Robert Zawistowski designed the sound and Elaina Vrattos the costumes, with assistance for the Garden of Eden scene's animal costumes from stage manager John Murtagh. A live behind-the-scenes orchestra keeps up a driving ferocity through all the wild twists of plot.
"Bat Boy: The Musical" runs through Nov. 20. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.