Where are all the plays inspired by outlandish stories in tabloids? I just know of one, and that’s Bat Boy: The Musical, which was inspired by a 1992 cover story in the “Weekly World News” about a boy who appeared to be part bat living in West Virginia (having lived in West Virginia before, this isn’t so shocking a claim). The cover of the tabloid became quite popular as an example of the ridiculousness of that and other tabloids, and no doubt you may have seen it before even if you haven’t read the article.
Taking inspiration from that photo and article, Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming wrote the book to Bat Boy: The Musical, with music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe. The play was first performed in 1997, eventually premiering off-Broadway in 2001 and garnering a cast recording before closing after nearly nine months. I remember it being popular off-Broadway at the same time as Urinetown: The Musical and there being debate on which might move to Broadway (only Urinetown: The Musical did). I first saw the play in a 2002 D.C. production that was partially environmental and quite serious in tone, so what a joy it was to see Emerald City Players present Bat Boy: The Musical in the tongue-in-cheek way as it was intended.
Bat Boy: The Musical takes place in Hope Falls, West Virginia, where cattle are dying at an alarming rate and a mysterious wild boy resembling a bat has been discovered. Could he be the cause of the cattle deaths? He is taken to the home of Dr. Parker, the local vet, with the thought that he will be disposed of; instead he is adopted by the family, learns English, and gets his GED! Still, the community doesn’t trust him, and it is only a manner of time before his true background is revealed.
Nick Beecroft plays “Bat Boy” Edgar (Ms. Parker names him that) with wild abandon, completely unafraid of looking foolish. Sure, his bald cap is makeshift and shoddy, but that’s in keeping with the tone of this piece; if it was done too well it wouldn’t have fit in at all. It’s theatre of the absurd, so when Beecroft goes from moaning to communicate to speaking English with a British accent in a matter of days, the line of demarcation from where his forehead ends and the bald cap begins is the least of one’s concerns. He first appears nearly nude with confidence and is a total team player, jumping around and slobbering with his fake chompers.
Denae Sullivan as Meredith Parker is another standout as the matriarch of the Parker family. Her singing voice is pure and clear, which is good because she has the most challenging notes to hit in the score. There was a moment in last night’s performance where she slipped on some stage blood and fell so gracefully that I wasn’t sure it wasn’t planned. She held her note and stayed in character during it all, though she appeared in the second act with some bandages around her ankle. She persevered in the spirit of “the show must go on” and disguised her limp while in character extremely well. Only at the curtain call did it appear that she was in some distress, but her performance didn’t suffer at all – in fact, it seemed to get better, as if she now had something more to fight against along with her husband and the townsfolk in the play! Is she getting stunt pay? I hope she recovers quickly and they make sure to clean up the blood to help prevent mishaps in the future.
Alexa Rybinski is Shelley Parker, playing her with sarcasm and sass to spare. She has similar coloring as Sullivan playing her mom, and their scenes together are some of the best in the play as they really know how to balance and play off of that tenuous mother-daughter dynamic.
Jim Bownas as Sheriff Reynolds is interesting as he comes off as the least experienced in the cast without a real “stage voice,” but boy does he fit the part! He has a swagger and a speech pattern that reminds of the good old boys in West Virginia, and the way he speaks rather than sings his lyrics (a la Rex Harrison) works as well.
Jonathan March plays a variety of roles, most notably as Rick, Shelly’s gruff and flanneled boyfriend. Personally, I got the biggest kick out of seeing him in a dress and wig as Lorraine, the town busybody. Like Beecroft, March isn’t afraid at all to “go for it” and contort his strong features into many different characters for comedic effect.
Alex Lanier also plays several roles, and what a joy to finally get to hear her voice! I saw her in SRO’s The Fantasticks as the mute (!), so to hear her stirring voice and witness her spot on comedic delivery is a revelation.
Director Jody Hepp has done a marvelous job keeping the tone of the piece in check. Many of the songs veer into melodrama, but Hepp always finds some way to remind the audience, “This is a comedy.” Sudden moments of cartoon violence are surprising as well as hilarious, and they are mostly very well handled with practical effects. Performed in a makeshift performance space at the MOSSL (Mid-Ohio Select Soccer League) offices, the overall spirit is one of “let’s put on a show” reminiscent of the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films where they would put on performances in a barn. That’s not meant to imply that it is shoddy at all; the sound is clear, the lighting good, and the small band doesn’t miss a beat.
There is a lovely intimacy in this space as well, with less than fifty comfortable seats spaced evenly in front of the stage. Entertainment and art can come about in sometimes the oddest of locations, but I’m an advocate for it no matter where it can be staged! Some of my best theatregoing experiences have been in funky little off-Broadway spaces in downtown Manhattan, so I’m all for the different and unique if at the end of the day I have a good time. If you liked Little Shop of Horrors, then you should give Bat Boy: The Musical a try.
*** out of ****
Bat Boy: The Musical continues through to August 14th in the Mid-Ohio Select Soccer League offices at 670 Lakeview Plaza Suite D in Worthington, OH (around 25 minutes north of Columbus), and more information can be found at http://emeraldcityplayers.com/