Sunday, October 28, 2007

My Kind of Song and Dance: Bat Boy the Musical

Unintentionally bad movie musicals hold an irresistible thrall for me, but (as has been intimated in these virtual pages before) I'm not much of a fan of the artform as a whole, especially the modern musical.

Gloppy ballads (a trope of the genre) give me the heebie-jeebies, and the grunting rock dork in me involuntarily cringes at the slick and hyper-enunciated Broadway singing/composition style being wedged into a backbeat like Avril Lavigne throwing on a Sex Pistols T-shirt. So it's grand news to this musicals-loathing curmudgeon that Bat Boy the Musical, playing at the Artswest Playhouse in Seattle 'til November 10, entertains so thoroughly.

As the title indicates, this off-Broadway creation takes the late, great Weekly World News's favorite cover model as its inspiration. But rather than follow the WWN's increasingly outlandish printed reports for a plotline, Bat Boy the Musical keeps all of the action in Hope Falls, West Virginia, where the mysterious title man-beast (Troy Wageman) is captured from deep within a mountain cave by a couple of local yokels, and brought to the local veteranarian's home.

That vet, Dr. Parker (Nick DeSantis), takes Bat Boy in and initally fights to keep the little guy safe from the intolerant townsfolk. Parker's wife Meredith (Heather Hawkins) and daughter Shelly (Krystle Armstrong) take a shine to the pointy-eared bloodsucker: Soon Bat Boy's been re-christened Edgar, and thanks to Meredith's Pygmalion dotage learns to speak and reason with nigh-Shakespearian elocution. All seems well, until jealousy--and the irredeemable ignorance of the townsfolk--combine to bring things to the obligatory tragic climax.

Keythe Farley's and Brian Flemming's book takes a few too-easy jabs at the Weekly World News's rube demographic, and at organized religion, but mostly it gooses musical and B-movie cliches to winning effect a la Little Shop of Horrors. Edgar's education gloriously lampoons My Fair Lady, and Laurence O'Keefe's very catchy songs hit all of the stereotypes with vigor and wit: The Inspirational Group Sing-Along ("Hold Me, Bat Boy"); the wistfully nostalgic ballad ("Dance With Me, Darling"); the Broadway-ized attempt at hip-hop ("Watcha Wanna Do"), etc. Even if you're a musical theater Grinch, there's a lot to love--and laugh heartily at--here.

Entertaining as the story and score are, though, the cast is what really sells Bat Boy the Musical. Stem to stern, the whole ensemble's so great that it's easy to forget that the show wasn't written specifically for them. DeSantis plays the doctor with just the right amount of earnest academia and eyeball-rolling dementia, and Hawkins takes the archetypical Susie Homemaker to hilarious, Oedipal extremes. Farley's and Flemming's story reserves some of its most twisted jabs for ingenue Shelly, and Armstrong responds with full-bore comic gusto.

Scene-stealer laurels, meanwhile, go to Wageman. Hanging from the rafters chattering like, well, a bat boy at the start, he eschews extreme makeup (pointed ears and a shorn head work just fine, thanks) and gives a performance so funny, expressive, physical and fearless (love his English schoolboy riff at the last half) that you can't keep your eyes off him. And with a cast this strong, that's saying a lot.

Technically, this is a tiny show, but the behind-the-scenes folk are likewise at the top of their games. Will Abramse's sparse set (two painted flats, augmented by a circular scrim upon which titles and hilarious flashback photos are Powerpointed on) captures the ramshackle vibe of the original Weekly World News's visual style nicely, and Kristin Culp's choreography works wonders on the relatively compact stage. The band, led by conductor/keyboardist R. J. Tancioco, kept things tight and energetic.

This howlingly good time continues its run at Artswest until November 10. Check it out.

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