Just batty 

Tabloid theater gone wild

Bat Boy is not your mother’s musical. Take, for instance, the origins of one of the many musicals it parodies: My Fair Lady was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 classic play Pygmalion. Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, by comparison, adapted Bat Boy from the tabloid pages of the Weekly World News. Bat Boy isn’t Irving Berlin; it’s Jerry Springer. It’s not high art; it’s art written by dudes who were high. Bat Boy isn’t meaty drama for critics to chew on; it’s pop culture for theater muffins to consume like candy. You get the point, but it’s important to understand what’s being discussed here—we’re talking about a musical that includes a climactic animal orgy that would make Jack Hanna blush. These hills aren’t alive with the sound of music; they’re thumping like a fetish rave.

After successfully launching in Los Angeles in 1997, and reaching off-Broadway in New York City in 2001, Bat Boy has attracted loyal audiences akin to those who flock to Rocky Horror Show. At the heart of the production’s appeal is the ridiculous setup of the story itself: a half-man, half-bat is discovered in a small West Virginia town populated with stereotypical country bumpkins. The play’s zany premise and screwball delivery either endear it to those looking for something fresh or offend those protecting the sanctity of the stage. But deep in Bat Boy’s cave, obscured by the barrage of lampooning and tomfoolery, a fun little story does emerge.

Once captured by three teenage stoners, the Bat Boy is brought to the town’s veterinarian, Dr. Thomas Parker (Jamie Parnell). The vet’s supposed to kill the thing, but his wife, Meredith (Krisanne Markel), gets him to grant a reprieve with the promise of a long-time-coming night in the sack. Meredith sees promise in the Bat Boy, and wants to raise and educate him as one of her own. It doesn’t hurt that the doc’s daughter, Shelley (Mary Alice Middagh), is able to look past the Spock ears and fangs, and is falling for the Bat Boy, whom they eventually name Edgar.

While the Parker family is playing dress-up with the nocturnal mammal, the people of Hope Falls (foreshadowing anyone?) are struggling to switch their town from a dependence on coal mining to cattle. But cows are dying, and the only hope is an annual evangelical tent revival billed as “the social event of the year.” The town’s folks want the Bat Boy dead—especially after he chomps on the neck of one of the cave stoners—but, more importantly, they don’t want this now-educated manimal crashing their Jesus party. Naturally, the Bat Boy doesn’t comply—he attends because he’s been reading the Bible and having some problems with the passages that denounce eating people.

Will God save him? Will the rednecks befriend him or behead him? Or will Edgar flip out and start drinking everyone’s blood? It takes some time to get to this point—the first act struggles to find the right rhythm of cynicism and storyline—but once it does, it becomes an outlandish tale of alienation and acceptance, an atypical version of the age-old story of a wild animal domesticated, a beast turning beautiful. And it adds some even more bizarre twists, from the aforementioned animal romp to a Quentin Tarantino-like ending.

Director Teresa Waldorf’s handling of the lowbrow content in this University of Montana Drama/Dance production is appropriate; nothing is taken too seriously and the pacing is quick. The costumes by Nora Mundé Gustuson are similarly in step—the townfolks are decked out in trucker hats and sleeveless plaid shirts, while the Parkers look like the Cleavers, with all-American ’50s-era grooming. Mike Monsos’ minimal set design includes a series of panels that are either backlit with shadowy images or illuminated from the front with decorated patterns—during the first act this backdrop appears woefully dull, but as dream sequences and flashbacks emerge during the production’s more interesting conclusion, the versatile set proves its worth.

The cast is headlined by David Errigo Jr. as Bat Boy. His mannerisms are reminiscent of Chris Kattan as Mr. Peepers in the “Saturday Night Live” monkey-boy skit, a fun combination of athleticism and humanoidism. His singing is strong and evocative, and shows versatility with the pop-rocker “Let Me Walk Among You” and the quieter ballad, “Mine All Mine,” which he shares with the hot-knife-to-butter harmonies of Middagh.

The music of Bat Boy, scored by Laurence O’Keefe, is modern rock, driven by a five-piece band that is unfortunately hidden in the darkness backstage. The only drawback of UM’s performance is that not everyone on stage has the lungs of Errigo and Middagh—too often, both in song and narrative, characters were shrieking out of range instead of hitting their notes with the resonance required by amplified musical theater. This lack of depth hurts some of the ensemble numbers and the solos from secondary characters, but it isn’t enough to detract from the overall performance.

Bat Boy is billed as an anti-musical, a mockery of the entire genre, and its satirical skewering of its so-called counterparts (The Lion King, Tommy, West Side Story and Lady are all targets), uncultured rednecks, and compassionate Christians makes it easy to enjoy. Despite its claim as something different, Bat Boy isn’t immune to flaws like a choppy first act and some bad notes, but its spirit can certainly overcome them.

UM Drama/Dance’s production of Bat Boy: The Musical continues at the Montana Theatre through Saturday, Oct. 8, and Tuesday, Oct. 11, through Saturday, Oct. 15. Shows start at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $15/$12 students. Call 243-4581.

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