It’s been nearly 20 years since Bat Boy: The Musical had its world premiere on Halloween night in 1997 at the Actors’ Gang, the California theater company led by actor Tim Robbins. And it’s been a little more than 15 years since the show had a high-profile off-Broadway run in 2001, winning the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical.
Yet only now is Bat Boy receiving its professional Chicago premiere, in a well-sung, high-energy production by the Griffin Theatre Company. I don’t know why it’s taken so long for this oddball, engaging if macabre cult item to make its way here, but it was worth the wait. With its perverse sense of humor and driving but varied pop-rock score, Bat Boy is a smart, darkly comic fable that resonates both as a campy spoof of grade-Z horror flicks and a thoughtful, if irreverent, consideration of an age-old theme: What separates us human beings from our animal ancestors? Can education, language skills, love, and faith tame the bloodthirsty beast inside each of us?
With a script by playwrights Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming and a score by songwriter Laurence O’Keefe (whose subsequent credits include Legally Blonde and Heathers), Bat Boy was inspired by an article in the now-defunct supermarket tabloid Weekly World News. “Bat Boy Found in West Virginia Cave!” screamed the cover of the paper’s June 23, 1992, edition, illustrated with the photo of a pudgy, freakish bald humanoid with razor-sharp teeth. As chronicled by WWN over the next 15 years, the mysterious Bat Boy embarked on a series of wild adventures, at one point joining the U.S. military to fight in Afghanistan after 9/11. (“Bat Boy Meets with Bush at Camp David,” WWN reported in November 2001.) WWN also tracked down the stories of Bat Boy’s ancestors, including an accused witch burned at the stake in Salem, a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and a Prohibition-era Chicago gangster.
But the musical’s Bat Boy has a far different history than the one WWN invented for its running character. In Farley, Flemming, and O’Keefe’s version, the teenage mutant—half human, half bat—is discovered by three dope-smoking amateur spelunkers from Hope Falls, West Virginia, population 500. They capture the half-naked creature, and the local sheriff takes the boy to the home of the local veterinarian, Dr. Thomas Parker, for examination and possible euthanasia. But while Tom’s away on a hunting trip, his wife, Meredith, and their teenage daughter, Shelley, take an unlikely liking to the boy. Shelley at first wants to keep him as a pet, while Meredith wants to humanize him. She names him Edgar and teaches him to sing and then to speak. The result is a triumph of southern-style home schooling: Edgar’s a fast learner, and with the help of some BBC language tapes he’s soon rattling off erudite phrases in an impeccable upper-crust English accent. (“I think I’ve got it!” he gleefully exclaims in a choral number modeled on My Fair Lady‘s famous “Rain in Spain” number.)
Yet as his intellect and language skills develop, Edgar becomes more and more unhappily aware of his animal nature. It’s not just his pointy ears, darting tongue, and fangs; it’s the fact that he can’t eat the delicious home-cooked meals Meredith whips up for him. Turns out that the only nourishment Edgar can take is blood. Discovering this, Tom the animal doctor covertly satisfies that appetite, secretly feeding Edgar a steady supply of small furry animals. Tom professes to be Edgar’s friend, even a father figure—but he’s really only letting the lad live in order to please Meredith, his estranged wife, who has developed a strong maternal protectiveness toward the boy.
Meanwhile, the townsfolk are distressed by a mysterious disease that’s ravaging their livestock—the only source of income for a community once economically dependent on now-depleted reserves of coal. Edgar, many suspect, is the cause of the cow plague. The tension reaches a boiling point when an itinerant preacher brings his traveling tent revival to town, offering Edgar a chance to be redeemed by the “Christian charity” the townsfolk pride themselves on. But Shelley, the doctor’s daughter, offers Edgar a different kind of love—a passion consummated in a pantheistic fertility ritual presided over by none other than the great god Pan himself. (This climactic plot twist isn’t surprising given that the show’s coauthor Brian Flemming, primarily a filmmaker, is best known for The God Who Wasn’t There, a 2005 documentary that advocates the “Jesus myth theory,” which holds that Christianity’s roots lie in ancient pagan beliefs, not historical fact.)
When Bat Boy played in London’s West End in 2004, a British critic dubbed the show “Edward Scissorhands meets The Rocky Horror Show.” Other influences that Bat Boy recalls range from Pippin to Carrie, from Floyd Collins to Side Show, from Jesus Christ Superstar and The Phantom of the Opera to Jekyll & Hyde. There are also hints of Gilbert and Sullivan, Into the Woods, and even Rent. And certainly, Bat Boy is a natural complement to the 1982 off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, which by a nice coincidence is enjoying a successful Chicago revival by American Blues Theater at the Greenhouse Theater Center through June 26. But where Little Shop is adapted from a specific low-budget monster movie—Roger Corman’s 1960 The Little Shop of Horrors, about a bloodthirsty alien plant that sets out to take over the world starting with a Skid Row flower shop—Bat Boy seems to simultaneously satirize and celebrate the entire canon of wackily overplotted drive-in flicks churned out in the 1950s by shlock shockmeisters like Herman Cohen, whose I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Werewolf defined the teen-scream genre. Indeed, if Cohen had made a film titled I Was a Teenage Vampire, the result might very well have been Bat Boy, whose adolescent hero struggles to assert his humanity while suppressing his hormonal and hematophagic urges. And, as is so often the case in movies like the Cohen cult classics, the youth’s fight to conquer his basest instincts is tragically thwarted by the very person whose support he depends on: a duplicitous doctor with a devious secret agenda.
Griffin Theatre’s production—directed by Scott Weinstein, with some wonderfully loopy choreography by Rhett Guter and Amanda Kroiss—features deft lead performances by the gangly, agile Henry McGinniss as Edgar, Matt W. Miles as Tom, Tiffany Tatreau as Shelley, and Anne Sheridan Smith as Meredith. Most of the supporting cast play multiple roles, switching characters and even genders with a quick change of wig or costume in full view of the audience, with whom the actors sometimes playfully interact as well. An array of wildlife, from a cute (but doomed) little bunny rabbit to a swarm of bats, is represented through clever puppetry designed by Lolly Extract and Amber Marsh, adding to the homemade flavor of the piece. The effect is simultaneously casually scruffy and slickly precise. The offstage band under the direction of keyboardist Charlotte Rivard-Hoster delivers the rock score with a good crunchy feel, though some sound problems at the opening performance obscured the lyrics. This problem will, I hope, be addressed in short order; Bat Boy deserves full appreciation for its witty writing as well as its boisterous spirits. v