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BAT BOY: The Musical An Ambitious Undertaking With a Great Score

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The setup:

A made-up tabloid article about a boy who grew up living in a cave inspired this musical, about a mutant half boy, half bat, first produced in Tim Robbins's Actors' Gang Theatre in 1997 in Culver City, CA, then off-Broadway in 2001 for a very respectable run, then in London's West End in 2004. It has significant elements of camp, and has gained a cult following.

Deven May starred as the mutant in all three productions, an indication that he had found a way to make the grotesque palatable, and to engage audience sympathies. Now Bayou City Theatrics (BCT) brings the BAT BOY: The Musical to Houston, directed by and starring its Artistic Director, Colton Berry.

The execution:

This is a bare bones production, no set but with some atmospheric lighting, but it was designed to be presented that way, so this is no problem. The venue, "The Kaleidoscope", is new to BCT, and is impressive, high ceilings, marble pillars and a balcony, used to good effect in this production.

The work has a split personality. The mutant looks like the vampire in the 1922 movie Nosferatu, bald head, fangs, and Mr. Spock ears. The role, like that of the elephant man, is a lodestone to actors, as it is demanding and requires acting chops. Colton Berry has those in spades, and that may be one of the problems, as his performance is serious, nuanced and highly intelligent.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on stage, the ensemble cast is busily engaged in cross-dressing, and wearing deliberately sloppy hillbilly costumes and deliberately bad wigs. The result is Hamlet meeting Hee Haw.

The setting is Hope Falls, West Virginia, population 26, mostly young, hot-headed rednecks. The energetic ensemble hurl themselves into their various roles as townspeople with admirable enthusiasm, though without much conviction. Brian Chambers, as the sheriff, amuses while still creating an authentic, consistent character.

Bat Boy is intended to be repellent, but likable. Besides Deven May's success in the role, I had the good fortune to see a Miami production where this was delivered. Berry in a body stocking, shaved head, fangs and weird ears, with eye makeup to suggest undead, captures the repellent part. But he seems more alien creature from outer space, a Puck from a dystopian world, than a half-human. Berry's characterization is admirable, but endearing escapes him.

The work is implausible in its concept, operatic in its ambition, and melodramatic in its events. I won't spoil the several surprises, but suffice it to say that Bat Boy is discovered in a cave, and raised by veterinarian Dr. Thomas Parker (Kyle Ezer), his wife Meredith (Crystyl Swanson) and his daughter, Shelley (Tori Shoemaker). Bat Boy is initially kept in a cage, and the size of the cage is a serious error, as it resembles a torture device, far too small for even a moment of comfort. I gather we are meant to sympathize with Bat Boy's struggles inside it, but it mistakenly positions the adoptive family as either sadists or morons.

Bat Boy, now re-named Edgar, is treated kindly by Meredith, and Shelley, although Dr. Parker is hostile. The townfolk are also hostile, as there is a cattle plague, and Edgar is suspected of causing it. Edgar becomes educated - this passage is a bit tedious - but it pays off with a delightfully amusing moment when Edgar says "indubitably" with all the relish of an Oxford don. It is unexpected and one of the rare moments when director Berry permits actor Berry to show humor or charm, rather than intensity or suffering.

Edgar's plea for healing and acceptance in a revival meeting is well-staged, dramatic, and powerful, a memorable scene. The venue's balcony houses animal puppets singing (and doing a lot more) in Act Two, an amusing highlight - it is fascinating, charming, and hilarious. At the ending melodrama emerges with the force of a typhoon, and emotions surge into violence, though knives are wielded, guns drawn, and hypodermic needles brandished throughout.

Swanson and Shoemaker are convincing as mother Meredith and daughter Shelley - both are very attractive and likable, though they fall short of capturing some of the intense dramatic highlights. Ezer is a bit wooden as Dr. Parker, carrying the narrative with little variation or passion in his voice, though his body language is more expressive.

This may be the rare musical that should be heard, rather than seen. It has a pop-rock score, music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe. The music is dramatic, catchy and involving, and the lyrics are excellent, literate, witty, and they deepen the characterizations and the narrative. The story and book are by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, and the schizophrenic approach of high camp linked to a plea for acceptance and tolerance is deeply embedded, infusing the entire story.

I especially liked the rollicking "Show You a Thing or Two" and the sensitive, haunting "Let Me Walk among You", but the entire score is a treat, thanks to the musical direction of Jane Volke, and the great four-piece band, unobtrusively hidden, of Jonathan Craft, Mark Harlan, Erik Estrada and Mike Blair.

The lighting needs to be polished, but BCT just got the keys to its new venue in late May, and it is wonderful to see how well they have done in a just a few days. BCT's previous production of Into the Woods was elaborate, engaging and charming, and its production of The Wild Party was haunting and beautiful, approaching genius. I look forward to future productions of this dynamic troupe.

The verdict:

An ambitious undertaking stops short of success, but delivers some memorable dramatic highlights, some brilliantly adroit humor, and a score and lyrics to be cherished.

BAT BOY: the Musical continues through June 7, from Bayou City Theatrics, at its new venue The Kaleidoscope, 705 Main (enter around the corner under the Capitol marquee). Information and ticketing at www.bayoucitytheatrics.com.

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