Bat Boy: The Musical
Story and book by Keythe Farley and Brian Fleming
Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe
Directed by Melissa Baughman
Produced by Landless Theatre Company
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Bat Boy is ripped from the pages of Weekly World News. Landless whips it up with a frothy, fun-filled production which milks every laugh by playing the story straight. Well, as straight as you can play a show with a homicidal veterinarian, a hoedown about dead cows, an inter-species animal puppet orgy, and a half-chiroptera, feral adolescent with a proper English accent and moves like Fred Astaire.
I can’t say I was familiar with Weekly World News. Growing up in the Midwest, the major supermarket tabloids were The National Enquirer and The Star. Nevertheless, the same standard of journalistic excellence prevails, I’m sure. Now, if co-authors Farley and Fleming had put Sasquatch in the lead role they could have avoided those pesky WWN licensing fees. Bigfoot Boy: The Musical? No, definitely not as catchy. Despite the burden of newspaper royalties, composer Laurence 0’Keefe helped support Bat Boy workshops with proceeds from his many awards. O’Keefe won an ASCAP Foundation Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award, an award created by daughter Mary Rodgers, a successful composer herself, to encourage promising young musical theater composers. He’s also been recognized with Jonathan Larson and Ed Kleban awards for his songwriting. O’Keefe finds himself in the company of two of my favorite Rodgers honorees Adam Guettel (Floyd Collins, Myths and Hymns, and Tony-winning Light in the Piazza) and Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical; Best Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie; and the revolutionary and critically acclaimed Caroline, Or Change with Pulitzer winner, Tony Kushner). O’Keefe has chosen quirkier books than Tesori and Guettel, but his current Broadway show, Legally Blonde, had me and the rest of the audience giddy with surprise and delight and roaring with laughter.
Bat Boy also touched a nerve as well as a vein among audiences, resulting in a cult following surrounding the cast recording and the over one hundred productions staged around the country, including a Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics’ Circle award-winning run off-Broadway and a well-received DC premiere at Studio Theatre five years ago. Internationally, the show was a London success and reportedly is quite popular in Japan and Korea, presumably for its faithful portrayal of American rural life. (I’m assuming North Korea.)
Landless performs in a postage stamp-sized theater in the heart of Adams Morgan. The cast includes some veteran performers with a bevy of young, enthusiastic actors who nicely ramp up the campy humor. Director Melissa Baughman sticks by the playwright’s casting guidelines: six men and four women cover the 25 roles (some productions have used 20+ actors). Elizabeth Reeves was charged with costuming the crowd; she has chosen items of clothing to signify each character in the ensemble, enabling actors to make lightening swift changes off stage and some on stage in hilarious fashion. Actor Josh Speerstra is poor dead Ricky Taylor sprawled on the ground one minute and the shocked and grieving church lady, Lorraine, the next. Kristina Granados transforms from Ron Taylor to Mayor Maggie faster than Hyde sidesteps into Jekyll.
Matt Macis is uncannily good as Batboy. Equally comfortable in a deep cavern, a dog cage, and a business suit (I’ll bet he found the cage less confining), Macis acts as though he’s studied countless newsreels of animal behavior and read extensively about the rescue of abused household pets. In fact, he moves like a gymnast in a Cirque Du Soleil extravaganza to create this precious, wounded animal. Twisting, turning, scrambling across the floor, shielding his eyes from blinding daylight, he’s brittle, broken, scarred and scared. Ultimately, he’s My Fair Batboy, though his journey from savage to “Ozzie and Harriet” family member is not so charmed.
The Parker Family as a whole is not to be confused with “Ozzie and Harriet” either. Tragic secrets don’t run in the family, they gallop. Esther Covington (as Meredith Parker) radiates motherly love and wraps her silky voice around “A Home For You” and “Three Bedroom House.” Who knew what secrets were lurking below the surface? The Parker daughter is played by Talia Segal, a talented singer-songwriter, who channels late-adolescent moods effectively from teen belligerence to vulnerability to ebullience. She brings an earnest, innocent quality to her performance. Then there’s dad, Thomas Parker, DVM (played by Andrew Lloyd Baughman), a vet whose put downs are of the needle, not sarcasm, variety.
Terry Spam (Sheriff Reynolds) carries much of the comedy on his shoulders with ease and style. Aaron Reeder rocks as the mythological Pan. Valeka Nichols is unplugged, unhinged, and unrestrained in her roles. She’s over-the-top in the Lucille Ball/Carol Burnett tradition, which is precisely the wild energy needed for her roles.
On the downside, the four-piece band (which plays spot on) is way, way too loud for the tiny performance space. My ears were still ringing the day after the show. I thought it was me, but other theatre-goers remarked that the performers were often drowned out by the music. I also thought that some of the leads were sounding hoarse midway in the show because of the strain of trying to sing up to or over the band. Amps add edge to a hip, snarky musical, but what to do if the volume tramples performance and intelligibility? There are some rock musicals which just don’t care if The WALL OF SOUND covers the storyline, but it’s not OK for a story-driven show like Bat Boy.
I’m confident that Landless can tweak this fine production into a sold-out run. It’s a hoot. Even if you saw the Studio production, give Landless a chance. It’s a breath of fresh air.
(Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with one intermission) Landless Theatre’s production of Batboy: The Musical must close Saturday, Oct 13th at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington. Performances: Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets: $18. To order, click here.
Fridays and Saturdays stick around for the late night surprise: Space Battle the Musical. Just $10.
Listen in as Joel interviews Batboy himself Matt Macis and Talia Segal. Click here.