Barely a week after Scott Weinstein picked up the Non-Equity Jeff Award for best direction of a musical (the terrific storefront edition of “Rent” at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, which also was named best musical production of the past season), he has sent Griffin Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “Bat Boy: The Musical” flying with all the force of the proverbial bat out of Hell. This show is nothing short of sensational; from the moment you enter its cave-like environment you ll be caught up in its giant webbed wings.
‘Bat Boy: The Musical’
When: Through July 24
Where: Griffin Theatre, at The Den Theatre,1329 N. Milwaukee
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
Part “wild child” tale, part Greek tragedy, part Frankenstein monster story, part Bible Belt fable (and more), the show, which is being brilliantly performed, is alternately heart-breaking and hilarious.
Nabbing the rights to this musical — which debuted in Los Angeles in 1997, and subsequently enjoyed a long run Off Broadway — is a well-deserved coup for Griffin Theatre. And it would be difficult to imagine a more enthralling production of it. While it might easily have devolved into campy horror, Weinstein and his actors go for the dramatic truth, as well as the laughably ghoulish excesses. They also have great material with which to work: A whip-smart book by Keythe Farley and Brian Fleming, and a volcanic rock-meets-opera score by Laurence O’Keefe that also incorporates everything from a revival meeting rouser to a fervent love song.
Set in a poor West Virginia town, where the coal mines are being shut down and those trying to transition to ranching are doomed to failure, “Bat Boy” begins as Ron (Kelley Abell), Rick (Jeff Meyer) and Ruthie (Erin Daly), go spelunking and reach a particularly deep level of a cave. It is there that they are stunned to encounter a creature they dub Bat Boy (Henry McGinniss). (In what is unquestionably a career-making performance, McGinniss — a lean, graceful actor outfitted with a wonderful set of prosthetic ears — sings beautifully and brings pathos and charm to every stage of his evolution).
Although Bat Boy (who is something of a variation on a feared but fascinating extraterrestrial) bites Ruthie out of fear, the three “explorers” haul him back to town where they expect the Sheriff ((Michael Kingston) to shoot him. But ultimately he ends up in a cage in the home of the local veterinarian, Dr. Parker (Matt W. Miles), his wife, Meredith (Anne Sheridan Smith, who not only nails her character, but has a powerhouse voice), and their teenage daughter, Shelley (Tiffany Tatreau, a petite actress with a clarion voice).
Almost from the start, Meredith, who is locked in a troubled marriage, is drawn to Bat Boy with a deeply maternal spirit. She gives him a proper name — Edgar. And with careful tutoring, and secret feeding of his dietary staple (blood), Bat Boy begins to emerge as a brainy, stylish fellow with an uncanny English accent who even manages to earn a high school diploma. Given all this, you might expect him to be fully welcomed at the town’s big annual revival meeting but despite all the singing about “Christian Charity” he is, in fact, coldly rejected. He also becomes the scapegoat for a murder he has not committed.
Meanwhile, Shelley has fallen in love with Edgar and… well, I will divulge no more. Suffice it to say, before it’s all over there is plenty of carnage, the revelation of many secrets, one of the more hilarious evocations of a not-so-Peaceable Kingdom (a zany low budget twist on “The Lion King”), and an award-worthy cameo performance by a sacrificial rabbit hand puppet. (Applause for puppet designers Lolly Extract and Amber Marsh), as well as the ensemble, which also includes Ron King (who stirs it up to grand effect as Reverend Hightower) and Jordan Dell Harris.
Charlotte Rivard-Hoster’s musical direction is exceptional. The set, designed by Jeff Kmiec and Greg Pinsoneault, and winningly lit by Brandon Wardell, makes fine use of The Den’s raw space, with Izumi Inaba’s costumes just colorful but down-scale enough. Be advised: There is no guano here, but there is blood, and plenty of darkness, plenty of laughs, and plenty of heart.