March 28, 2013

From the Tabloids to the Stage: Bat Boy at Risley Theatre

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Director Danny Bernstein ’14 and company would be hard-pressed to pick a better week, social context-wise, to present their production of Bat Boy: The Musical. The Bat Boy (Stephen Markham’16) is a lovable protagonist looking for acceptance, and the play is largely an allegory for the prevalence of hypocrisy, racism and scapegoating in contemporary society. With story by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming and music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe, it is based on the 1992 Weekly World News Story about a half-bat, half-boy (“Bat Boy”) who lived in a cave outside of a coal mining town.  Far from pedantic, Bat Boy is a fun combination of slapstick comedy and campy horror overlaid with a dynamic score that includes rock, rap, traditional horror-film soundtracks, standard show-tune fare and spirituals, cumatively turning a dubious tabloid farce into witty, intelligent entertainment bearing a timely social message.

Bat Boy opens with three weed-smoking, Southern drawling, all-American teens exploring a cave near their town and provoking a mysterious cave creature until he attacks one of them. The bat boy is captured and brought into the town where a veterinarian, Dr. Parker (Alexander Quilty ’15), and his family are left to decide what to do with him. From there, the plot takes a trajectory á la Edward Scissorhands, as Dr. Parker’s wife Meredith (Sarah Coffey ’16) and daughter Shelley (Katelyn Pippy ’15) take a liking to the bat boy, naming him Edgar, and decide to help him acclimate to society. The townspeople resist this staunchly, calling him a freak and demanding that he not attend the upcoming evangelical Revival, all the while suspecting that he is responsible for the insidious “cow plague” that is keeping their slaughterhouse out of business.

The song “Comfort and Joy” is the climax of the play’s allegory, with lyrics like “Please won’t you change the way I am or prove I’m human underneath. Or if you don’t give a damn, just get rid of me.” Much of the play’s political bite is tucked into fast-paced lyrics up to this point, but here a kneeling bat boy makes a desperate attempt at prayer, refusing to let the audience ignore the societal parallels. The scenes featuring drawling ex-coal miners who repeatedly and exaggeratedly espouse their own “Christian Charity” even while blaming all economic and social hardship on a minority scapegoat are riddled with stereotyping of rural ignorance. However, the play’s emphasis on the hypocrisy of the religious right is spot-on, as when the evil Dr. Parker tosses Bible quotes at Bat Boy while mocking his attempts to stifle his blood-lust, or when, during the Revival scene, a frustrated Reverend tries time and again to shake and sing bat boy free of his “affliction.”

Individual performances in Bat Boy reflected the multi-dimensional quality of the play. It’s a script that demands comedic acting, as well as deft management of serious themes, and certainly vocal prowess. Quilty as Dr. Parker is appropriately terrifying (especially after the eyeliner goes on during intermission), and there are moments where he manages to be downright chilling without going anywhere near being over-the-top, while a cross-dressing Ben Elling ’13 as Bud/Daisy and a blade-tossing Nate Mattingly ’14 as Rick give the stand-out comedic performances.  I don’t even want to know the sort of method-acting that had to go into what Markham delivers, which is a convincing transition, in the span of the first act, from growling cave monster to “BBC language tape”-influenced, British-accented Edgar.  The girls of the cast are the real belters — Pippy, Coffey, and Danielle Warren ’14 as the Reverend all have impressive solos that are the caliber of a bigger league. “Three-Bedroom House,” while of lesser importance plot-wise, is one of the most fun musical numbers to watch because Pippy and Coffey bounce off each other spectacularly, hamming it up and having a great time but carrying off the vocal performance all the while.

A certain amount of ludicrousness has to be accepted when attempting to weave comedy and satire with serious discussion of the treatment of minorities in America. And because Bat Boy isn’t satisfied with a simple surface-level allegory, attempting to balance many complicated and heavy issues that spring from the central complaint, the task is even more difficult. But the cast of Risley’s production tackles this feat wholeheartedly and joyfully. The musical numbers and accompanying dances are stylistically all over the place, perhaps creating an intentionally messy collage that mirrors the pop culture-heavy script. There’s line dancing, waltzing, tap, standard vaudeville, Rockette kick-lines, ballet and even some full-on grinding. The plot has as many twists and turns as the play’s aesthetics, each less believable than the one before. But then, that’s tabloid-culture, and that’s urban legend and that’s myth. Bat Boy tackles the best of myths — America’s proclaimed dedication to acceptance and equality — poking holes in the claim, all the while letting the audience laugh at its deficiencies, rather than wallow in them.

Bat Boy: The Musical will run March 28th through the 30th at Risley Theatre. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door.

Original Author: Kaitlyn Tiffany