Miami’s “Bat Boy” is Something You Can Sink Your Teeth Into
Posted On April 27, 2019
Review by Shawn Maus of “Bat Boy: The Musical”: Miami Theatre
What can only be categorized as a Bacchanalian merciless ribbing of today’s hyper-sensitive, quick to judge culture in the world of social “media, Miami University’s “Bat Boy: The Musical” is a laugh-out-loud tour de force. Even though it was written over 20 years ago, the musical reflects a lot of what’s going on in society today as we marginalize people and groups.
Inspired by a 1992 story in the checkout counter “newspaper” Weekly World News (which gives their blessing to this production through co-hosting the event on Facebook), “Bat Boy” concerns the discovery in a Hope Falls, West Virginia cave of a half-human, half-bat creature, and the attempt by a the local veterinarian’s family to civilize the poor beast before the townspeople can get their hands on him.
Director Suann Pollock and her designers create a vivid opening, with spelunkers descending into the cavernous, fog-filled darkness pierced by the headlamps on the three Taylor Children — real down-home-boys out for a night of frolicking and bong-smoking. Just as all good urban legend/horror stories must have something that goes bump-in-the-night, Bat Boy (Worley Stidham) comes out of the darkness and bites one of them, Ruthie Taylor (Rachel Scardinia), and ends up being taken to the local veterinarian, Dr. Parker (Sam Adams) by the town sheriff (Jack Troiano). In the Parker household, he is eventually accepted as a member of the family and taught to act like a “normal” boy by the veterinarian’s wife, Meredith (Kate Herman), and teenage daughter, Shelley (Brooke Vespoli). Bat Boy is put through a very funny flash-card driven educational process that turns him into a cultivated, refined, bright young scholar who sounds like Stewie from Family Guy. The town of Hope Falls is set on discovering why the cows are dying and preparing for a revival with the Reverend Hightower, and even though they want Bat Boy out, their “Christian Charity” keeps them from killing him.
The musical is feisty, amusing, and goes straight for the comedy jugular. At times you’re treated to bits of music and drama reminiscent of “Little Shop of Horrors” mixed with “Jekyll & Hyde” “Spamalot” and “Sweeney Todd” then shaken and stirred with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
This is the slickest musical Miami University has produced in recent years and it shows.
Filled with tremendous amounts of energy, versatility in comedic timing, and dramatic effect, as well as an incredible extent of stamina, Director Pollock clearly understands the style of the show, and balanced the comedy and dramatic moments at just the right level.
The casting heightened the comedy and enhanced the bizarre world of Hope Falls, West Virginia (especially where she had men playing female characters and vice-versa). The actors successfully created dimensional characters that happened to live in this bizarre world of hick town cretins.
It’s hilarious to see Rylan Hixson play Rick Taylor and then flail about in a pink skirt as town council secretary, Daisy. Hixson’s comic timing is so impeccable he doesn’t need words. Although he can be lampoonish, his performance of both characters is heartwarming, goofy, and pleasingly energetic.
Sam Adams uses every ounce of his slender frame to wield the larger-than-life pizazz required to play Dr. Parker, especially when he morphs into the villain. Adams shows the duplicity behind every decision this character makes. He is complemented by the sitcom-Mom stylings of Kate Herman. As Meredith Parker, Herman perfectly captures the Donna Reed-esque performance needed in this counterpoint to snarky sitcom moms. The bond between mother and daughter, as well as the sometime battles over appropriate dresses, is completed by the performance of Brooke Vespoli as Shelley Parker, who eventually falls in love with Bat Boy to set off the star-crossed lovers story. Vespoli spans her own good girl/bad girl range with enthusiasm.
Dylan Gray plays a crass, rude, and hilarious Pan in a steamy midsummer night’s’ dream scene that garners enough whimsy to make sure nothing is quite like watching animal hand puppets banging on each other. (I discovered this interesting side note: Not only was Pan renowned for his sexual prowess, but he was also considered the god of theatrical criticism by the Greeks.)
And, of course, there’s Worley Stidham as Bat Boy. I was totally entranced and blown away away by the charisma and skill of his performance. When Bat Boy is captured in the cave, Stidham contorts his face into an off-center mask — his eyes bulge, his Spock-like ears jut out, and his mouth forms the distinctive “O” of the original front-page photo of Bat Boy, showing his grotesque screaming face, which went on to become the second-best selling issue in the tabloid’s history and that the visage has since evolved into a pop-culture icon. And then comes the moment, just before the song “Show You a Thing or Two” ends, when he simply lets go. The physical tension, (especially the cramped hand stylings of Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu) so rigidly sustained for almost a half hour, drains from his body, and Stidham’s face is his own again. This is the startling act of magic that only live theater affords — no CGI or prosthetics (excepting the ears). Just good old-fashioned theatrical acting — fragile one minute, then raging, then mournful. He’s sometimes inhumane but always human. Vocally, he proves adept at any of Laurence O’Keefe’s song styles — gospel, showtune, ballad.
Gion DeFrancesco’s set design is a marvel. Multifunctional and multi-faceted, the brilliant use of an “iris” of the cave opening which helps to spotlight the Bat Boy is subtle yet draws us into the bizarre world of Hope Falls. Lighting designer Marly Wooster provides fitting lightning and other effects that enhance the spooky tale. Ryan Heinrich leads a fine band, through the music often is too loud. Unfortunately, the room undermines this production on sound. Audio problems diminished the opening night performance. Some – mics cutting out, uneven volume levels – are fixable.
While “Bat Boy” holds a mirror to reflect a grotesque society, the show is as much about the conversation of today’s meme-infatuated society of fake news as it is about the great time people will have at the show. Truly fake news, “Bat Boy” is exactly the sort of entertainment we need right now. Anyone up for true originality shouldn’t miss this musical or its hilarious, talented cast. I would recommend this show to theatergoers looking for something fun and frothy. The talented cast and laugh-out-loud humor are what make this so much fun. A worthwhile evening and Miami University College of Creative Arts should be hailed for successfully mounting this ambitious production.
“Bat Boy” runs April 25-27 at 7:30 p.m. and May 5 at 2:00 p.m. in the Gates-Abegglen Theatre at Miami University.