Pointy Ears and Predictability

It's no secret that the makers of musical comedy have absolutely no shame. They'll go anywhere for inspiration, including animated films and pop culture. But who would've thought that the cover story of a supermarket tabloid would kindle a song-and-dance show? Deriders of musicals everywhere won't be surprised to learn that's exactly what's happened with Bat Boy the Musical, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre. Inspired by a 1992 Weekly World News cover story, Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming and Laurence O'Keefe have written a campy tale about a strange, pointy-eared, sharp-toothed boy found naked in a cave. They put the whole thing to song and called it a musical, and the show's as silly as one might expect, given the source material.

The opening scene is as good as this show gets. The stage is dark and shadowy. From the ceiling drops a long rope, then another and another. Soon enough, three people are descending quietly from the rafters. It's not until they've landed that we realize they're spelunking in the caves for which West Virginia is so famous. The promising and startling opening only makes the predictable morality tale that follows that much more disappointing.

The story -- about accepting those who are different -- follows poor Bat Boy (Scott Sowinski) from the dark cave to the light of civilization, where the humans confronted with the strange child behave like animals. Bat Boy is taken by the locals to see Dr. Parker (Brandon Peters), the town vet. Most everyone in tiny Hope Falls hopes the doctor will euthanize the creature. Instead, his soft-hearted wife, Meredith (Kara Greenberg), puts the boy in a cage and tries to feed him soup. Her teenage daughter Shelly (Erin Simpson) develops a crush on the boy, even though his skin is mushroom-white and he doesn't speak a word of any language. In fact, all he seems to know how to do is hang upside down from the bars of his cage and squeal at anyone who comes close.

In Eliza Doolittle style, Bat Boy eventually masters all the subtleties of culture and language. He even develops a British accent -- and, of course, an enormously good heart, which he sings about repeatedly. Meanwhile, everyone else in town just grows increasingly small-minded. They blame Bat Boy for everything that's gone wrong, including their sick cows.

But Bat Boy's most dangerous enemy turns out to be Dr. Parker, who doesn't much like the way his wife has taken such a shine to the boy. The good doctor isn't so good after all. But there are reasons for his bad behavior, which are revealed in the second act when the plot twists a bit (unfortunately, nothing here will be much of a surprise to anyone paying attention during Act I).

Besides the predictable story line, this production is undone by a cast that feels weirdly disconnected from each other. The individual performances are perfectly competent, but there isn't much chemistry between these actors. When Sowinski takes center stage as Bat Boy, his energy adds cohesion to the production. But most of the time each actor seems to be working in a vacuum.

A lot of the disconnection has to do with Brian Jucha's direction. A master of the avant-garde, Jucha has dazzled Houstonians in the past with shows he's directed at Infernal Bridegroom Productions (especially We Have Some Planes). But in the more workaday vernacular of musical comedy, the celebrated director seems a bit lost. Often the actors are pushed upstage and made to sit in awkward clumps. When they break out into song, they often end up standing on top of the furniture for no good reason. The movement feels forced and decidedly unnatural. Over and over, they circle the stage or a set piece during the numbers, stomping and moving in unison, but again, none of this feels connected to the music or this backwoods world. And though the score is lively, especially during the rock-operaesque numbers such as "Hold Me, Bat Boy," the performances are cartoonishly thin. No real fire ever erupts from the musical numbers.

Because Act II is dominated by Sowinski, the entire production gains strength even as it marches toward its predictable end. Bat Boy certainly makes for a pleasant enough alternative to the equally predictable Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols playing around town. But one can't help thinking that perhaps the tabloid stories ought to be left on the grocery store racks, where they do a fine job of amusing shoppers without a single song.

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Lee Williams