Theater Review - Flap-happy

Tabloid's Bat Boy becomes unlikely musical star

Just as the title character of Bat Boy: The Musical provides the missing link between man and bat, so does it find the long-lost link between tabloid journalism and Greek tragedy. Bat Boy's goofily melodramatic plot derives from a Weekly World News story but draws bloody conclusions about human nature. Greek drama shows personal impulses taken to dark extremes, and so do tabloid tales of forbidden love in the trailer park.

But is Bat Boy funny? Most of the time, absolutely. Freakish vampire boys and the townsfolk who hate them may be atypical material for musical comedy, but it's fresh meat for Dad's Garage. Bat Boy opens Friday at Dad's Garage after a two-week run as part of the Alliance Theatre's City Series, where the uneven but entertaining production soared more often than it limped.

Clifton Guterman plays the title character, although we don't really get a good look at Bat Boy the first time we see him. Three redneck spelunkers delving into a West Virginia cave catch a glimpse of a creepy, shrieking figure. Lit by only the trio's mining helmets, the pale, loin-clothed creature crouches in darkness like Gollum's spitting image — and he literally spits.

The fanged, pointy-eared "Bat Boy" bites one of the intruders, who beats him and hauls him around in a sack as the ensemble breaks into the opening song, "Hold Me, Bat Boy." Frequently the lyrics take musical cliches and push them just past the edge of absurdity: "Heed the tale of a filthy freak that's just like you! And you! And you!"

After the sheriff (Travis Sharp) imprisons Bat Boy at the veterinarian's house, the show begins to click with the tune "Whatcha Wanna Do?" in which the vet's daughter Shelley (Jill Hames) and her thuggish boyfriend Rick (Michael Schneider) taunt the creature — by rapping. Shelley's mother Meredith (Patty Guenthner) takes pity on the strangely starving Bat Boy, whom she dubs "Edgar." She intercedes when her husband, Dr. Parker (Geoff Uterhardt), returns from a hunting trip and tries to put Bat Boy down.

We quickly gather that the Parkers have a bad marriage, and Meredith agrees to invite her husband back into bed only if he keeps Bat Boy alive. Given that arrangement, when Dr. Parker lets bald-headed Bat Boy out of his cage and engorges him with duck blood, it's both a monster-movie moment and an image of twisted sexuality.

But is Bat Boy funny? Yes. In the scene above, Parker croons "Dance With Me Darling" to his wife, dancing while still wearing his hunter's hip waders. After she leaves, Dr. Parker pulls Bat Boy close and takes him through the same dance steps. Meredith swiftly teaches Bat Boy how to be civilized, and in "Show You a Thing or Two," he learns everything from how to say "Hello" to tea party etiquette.

Guterman vividly portrays Bat Boy as a feral wild child with his crouching, loping movements and by opening his mouth as wide as possible. He's especially amusing as educated "Edgar," speaking in a proper English accent and maintaining modest body language, as if Little Lord Fauntleroy had a craving for blood. Guterman poignantly reveals the character's tormented nature and longing for acceptance in songs like "Let Me Walk Among You."

Bat Boy creators Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming and Laurence O'Keefe have a flair for grand Guignol spectacle as well as non sequitur jokes. When Bat Boy and Shelley have an idyllic moment in the woods, they're joined by a familiar mythical deity who croons about love. A chorus of animal puppets joins in — and begin rutting. Dad's Garage empties its prop room for the wildlife orgy, and fans will recognize the bicycle horse from Cannibal the Musical and the Willie B. puppet from the Abby Awards show.

Some of Dad Garage's past summer shows like Carrie White: The Musical fell short of their outrageous premises, but Bat Boy carries its ideas to fruition. Chris Brown's queasily memorable makeup effects include a severed cow's head, a bleeding bunny puppet and a grisly burn mask. Cartoony shadow puppets expertly deliver the play's final bit of exposition, although it seems to go on forever.

Bat Boy's singing falls short of its potential, and that's not easily overlooked in a musical. Guterman and Hames both have strong voices, although Hames, one of Atlanta's most energetic musical players, never gets a big moment in the spotlight. Uterhardt superbly harnesses his intensity to turn the vet into a cross between crazed Dr. Frankenstein and the rational Professor from "Gilligan's Island." But the rest seldom impress. Guenthner's faint voice perpetually gets drowned out by others, and Travis Sharp proves not much stronger. The ensemble fares better with musical jokes, like when they take a deep breath before hitting a song's big note.

Director Sean Daniels made playful use of the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage performing space, putting Bat Boy literally in the audience during a faith healer's revival. Yet given the amped-up party atmosphere and more modest musical standards at Dad's Garage, Bat Boy will probably thrive when it comes home to roost.