Bat Boy has been a pop culture staple in the US since its inception in ludicrous tabloid the Weekly World News. Turning the character into the lead in a full blown musical has kept up the momentum of ridiculousness, with short Broadway and West End runs in the early 2000s and revivals by enthusiastic fans since then. Among them, ambitious amateur group What We Did Next, who have had Bat Boy in their sights for some time.
The story takes place in the red neck town of Hope Falls, West Virginia, when a group of teenagers exploring the local caves find Bat Boy, a feral creature they take back to the community – but with his ghoulish appearance and animalistic tendencies, acceptance doesn’t come easily.
Meredith Parker pleads with her husband, town vet Dr Parker, not to kill the stranger in their midst, and sets about domesticating and educating Bat Boy, who soon responds to Edgar, has picked up the fey mannerisms and giant IQ of Niles Crane, and is falling for the couple’s daughter, Shelley. But is he ready for the outside world?
And so Bat Boy the Musical plays out, a kind of King Kong meets Little Shop of Horrors – cartoony, over the top and garish in places, but also delivering a sweet message about love and acceptance. A likeable ensemble – always the strength of What We Did Next productions – remains interesting to watch throughout, but it’s almost worth going to see this show for Jack Malone as Bat Boy alone. His comic timing, strong vocals and physical performance when ‘full bat’ is a seriously impressive package, and his relationship with Shelley (Sarah Hale) is tender and cute.
The Parkers end up being more key to the plot than they might first appear, with Jen Ramage and Anthony Proctor contrasting well as the troubled couple, she the prim and proper housewife, and him progressing into an amusing scenery-chewing baddie. The big reveal is a bit silly and glibly dark (as are other parts of the show, like the family who die one by one for laughs), but it’s handled well and accompanied with a shadow puppet ‘flashback’.
As musicals go, Bat Boy is a bit hit and miss, but it’s good fun, catchy, moving in parts, and this production has enough good things about it to deserve its success. There is even a live band keeping score, although you can’t see them on stage (an impressive minimalist set of white scaffolding and props). The musicians, led by MD Jonas Tattersall, are actually playing upstairs in the Unity 2 space, with a TV link up for the actors to keep an eye on. Another interesting experiment that pays off.
Once again, What We Did Next pull off a complex production that does not suffer for the fact this is a labour of love put together by a company doing this in spare time outside the day job. There are two more performances, tonight (Friday, June 6) and tomorrow.