The lovers share a heartfelt duet in which she begs him to suck her blood. The misunderstood hero pleads for understanding from a fearful throng by asking “let me join your carpool,” and “let me file your taxes.” A chorus bursts into a description of a tragic event with the lyrics, “They stripped him of his dignity/They beat him like a gong/And he was kicked repeatedly/And that was wrong!/So wrong!”
In the decades ALW (After Lloyd Webber), musical theater has become an institution full of ossified grandiosity, all operatic flourishes without nearly enough spunk. As viscerally satisfying as shows like Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera may be to some, they were substituting spectacle for wit and flair. Rodgers and Hammerstein would have been appalled.
It took The Producers to begin the process of puncturing the Broadway musical’s inflated sense of self, but the skewering reaches its zenith in Bat Boy. Launched as an off-Broadway cult sensation, it gleefully slaughters every sacred cow of big brother Broadway’s musical money machines.
And to think that it all came from Weekly World News. The infamous supermarket tabloid’s 1992 story about a mutant child found in a West Virginia cave “inspired” this story by playwrights Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming and composer Lawrence O’Keefe. Their take finds the misfit Bat Boy (Robert Scott Smith) horrifying the small town of Hope Falls when he is found by amateur spelunkers, inspiring the sheriff to place him in the home of local veterinarian Dr. Thomas Parker (David Spencer). There he stokes the maternal fires of the doctor’s wife Meredith (Polly Seale), who names the creature Edgar and—in a stroke of Pygmalion—teaches him BBC-perfect English diction. But it will take more than rounded vowels to convince the residents of Hope Falls that Edgar isn’t a monster, even when the Parkers’ daughter Shelley (Faith Sandberg) warms to his form.
It’s been a long time since Salt Lake Acting Company has mounted a non-Saturday’s Voyeur musical production, so that alone should say something about Bat Boy’s unique spin. While the broad strokes of the plot evoke The Phantom of the Opera—liberally sprinkled with The Elephant Man—the show is essentially a pitch-perfect assault on musical tropes of all kinds. Not since South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut’s double-barreled blast at Disney and Les Mis has a project so brilliantly turned formulas on their ear—everything from Phantom to Rent to Into the Woods gets a nudge in the ribs. You’ll know you’re in the presence of sheer demented genius when Edgar’s mysterious history turns into hilarious epic tragedy.
But what makes Bat Boy more than just a hatchet job are its own hysterically hummable compositions. The first-act finale “Comfort and Joy” starts as a goof on the Les Mis show-stopper “One Day More” but turns into pure catchy pop with a gospel lilt. Edgar’s big number “Let Me Walk Among You” hooks subversive lyrics to a tune that could have anchored any Andrew Lloyd Webber score. While Farley, Flemming and O’Keefe may have crafted a satire, they followed the wise lesson of The Rocky Horror Show and Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Goofy is all well and good, but you’ve gotta deliver the songs.
Director John Caywood’s production delivers as well, combining great campy performances with strong voices. Voyeur veterans like Jason Tatom, Arika Schockmel, Brenda Sue Cowley and Aaron Swenson fill multiple roles in support of the four leads, performing quick-changes—often into drag—that become great punch lines all by themselves. Musical director David Evanoff and his band anchor the sound by giving a Blue Ã–yster Cult flavor to the tunes.
You have to love something to give it a proper satirizing, and there’s nothing remotely mean-spirited about Bat Boy’s jabs. The creators have written a musical for lovers of musicals, and for those who’ve rolled their eyes at where musicals have gone. It’s stripped-down fun that’s not afraid to offer a playful bite.
BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL, Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Nov. 18-Dec. 28, 363-0526