How can you fault a cult musical that uses as a lyric to the main character's upward striving, “I'm gonna Vincent van Gogh them, and Henry Thoreau them, and Plato, and Cato, and Edgar Allan Poe them...Gonna Jackie O them, Marilyn Monroe them, Botticelli, Machiavelli, Larry, Curly and Moe them!”?
This is sung by half feral/half human Edgar, a.k.a. Bat Boy (the nimble and audacious Colton Berry, looking every inch like Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu), captured and then brought into the dim light of West Virginia enlightenment by the sympathetic wife (Brennan Ashley, she of the classic Broadway belt) of the town's veterinarian (Brian Chambers). Edgar's an amazingly quick study, and his Eliza Doolittle transformation from nocturnal Chiroptera to stylish preppy is food to feast on. But you know the old saying, a bat boy's gotta do what a bat boy's gotta do, so you know his metamorphosis will not last. Nurture doesn't stand a chance against nature in Bat Boy, The Musical.
This rambunctious musical from composer/lyricist Laurence O'Keefe (later famed for Legally Blonde and Heathers), with book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming (neither of whom ever again reached such fame), is both terribly earnest and terribly tongue-in-cheek. Basing it on the completely faux yellow journalism story from Weekly World News about a “bat child found in cave,” the authors literally fly with the juicy details, supplying satiric texture – stereotypical backwoods toothless yahoos – but also adding a surprising amount of outsider empathy – "love your inner bat boy" is its final uplifting sampler message.
From its era, 1997, the musical is rife with redolent hints of the AIDS crisis, but now the references seem less topically poignant. The humor still bites, though. This is one of the few musicals that actually can turn on a dime. A scene may be preposterous and silly, then suddenly switches gears to catch you — dare I say — by the throat, wrenching you unexpectedly awake. Mom's tear-stained lullaby to Bat Boy in his cage, “A Home For You,” leads directly to the clueless townsfolk's “Another Dead Cow.” It's like Oklahoma and Green Acres have gotten all mixed up. From one lyric to the next, you don't know where this show is going. Parody? Tragedy? Inky social commentary? Beverly Hillbillies? Yet it works.
This show is unique in the canon, ready for all interpretations and surprisingly tuneful and quick on its feet. Kaleidoscope Theater overlays it with a slick gloss that can only be attributed to Berry, who not only stars (magnificently so), but also directs and has designed the sets, costumes, lighting, props, makeup and hair. Not even the great Ziegfeld did all that. But hats doffed to Berry, for he pulls it off. With its mobile stalactites in the foggy spelunking opening, the slit garbage bags as scenery, the resourceful pin spots of blood red, the metal slaughterhouse facade way upstage, to the clever costuming and absolute brilliance of Bat Boy's visage, the show's all of one piece. The tone's nightmarish but familiar, country-fried but Broadway-bound.
Except for Ashley's titanic vocal presence (which improves as the show progresses, or maybe it's because she finally finds her character), the others in the cast are of somewhat lesser wattage, although Tyler Galindo, as wailing gospel minister or randy teen Rick, can send a microphone into overdrive; and Victoria Riley, as Bat Boy's belated love interest, Shelley, finds her way decisively inside her inner diva in the second act.
The pastiche score isn't forgiving, running from Sondheim patter, heavy metal, fleeting rap, to generic musical knockoffs of Stephen Schwartz and Frank Wildhorn. It's never dull, that's for sure, even if the musical is overly long and repetitive. The show's gone through major revisions through the years – it premiered in 2001 off-Broadway, where it won Outstanding Musical from both the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Lucille Lortel Award – and Kaleidoscope has restored all the cuts made over the years in various versions. This makes for a long evening. By the time Pan and his furry forest creatures begin their regenerative pan-sexual romp that jump-starts Bat Boy and Shelley's tryst during Act II, some of the air has gone out of the show. “Fur and feathers making love, paws and claws and jaws and beaks. Let the song go on for weeks and weeks.” I've a feeling we're not in The Lion King anymore.
Berry, a true Broadway baby in whose veins flow the American Songbook, may howl like an A-list rock star, but it's his first impression as wounded animal that grabs us fiercely. Bobbing his head, bleating tiny primal screams while caged, or just poking up a crooked hand while tied in a sack, his Bat Boy is raw instinct. Impressively physical, he gets our attention, and from then on we never let go.
The chorus at the finale says it best: “Hold your Bat Boy, touch your Bat Boy, no more need to hide! Know your Bat Boy, love your Bat Boy, don't deny your beast inside! Ah, ah, aaaaah!”
Most assuredly, this is not The Lion King.
Bat Boy, The Musical continues through July 24 at Kaleidoscope Theater, 705 Main. For information, call 832-817-8656 or visit tkthouston.com. $30-$35.