Bat Boy:

A new production of a Broadway musical sparks and sputters but fails to take flight

Where do ideas for musicals come from? Time was, most of them were adaptations of plays or books (My Fair Lady, Guys & Dolls, South Pacific). Nowadays, though, inspiration for shows comes from all sorts of sources. Take, for example, Bat Boy: The Musical, which began life as a "real life" story in the pages of a supermarket tabloid about a bat-like boy discovered in a subterranean cave in the hills of West Virginia. The tabloid source immediately establishes a style for the show: Like tabloids and their sports counterpart, professional wrestling, Bat Boy can be appreciated as a deadpan serious melodrama or as an artful send-up. This camp sensibility seems a nice fit for Rich Simone and his Shores Performing Arts Theater, which is presenting the South Florida premiere of the New York hit. The tale of a sad loner persecuted by small-town prejudice has a loopy off-kilter charm that suits both Simone's company and its cavernous space, a dilapidated former movie theater that itself has a bat-cave quality.

Though the musical's tone is dry and droll, its story by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming has some weight. It begins when three small-town teens are exploring some subterranean caves. They encounter a naked boy with large bat-like ears and needle-sharp teeth. The savage "Bat Boy" can't speak or communicate, and when he feels threatened, he attacks and bites one of the teens. He's subdued and hauled to the sheriff, who faces strong public pressure to kill him. The sheriff balks but, fearing political punishment in his upcoming reelection campaign, passes him over to the town vet, Dr. Thomas Parker. Parker's wife, Meredith, takes a shine to the frightened Bat Boy and cares for him, naming him Edgar. Their teen daughter, Shelley, is disgusted by Edgar at first, but as Meredith teaches him speech and manners, she grows more and more fond of him. Meanwhile, though, the town wants him destroyed, and the community lurches toward a crisis.

This story has all sorts of points to make about societal prejudice, and the plot has several surprising dramatic turns. But the show's light wry style flickers from a serious perspective one moment to parody the next. Laurence O'Keefe's music isn't notable, except in its borrowings from other shows, but his inventive lyrics manage to sound silly and smart at the same time: "A boy of his complexion's gonna meet with some objections."Much of the music references classic shows, and the high melodrama often teeters into camp. But both parody and camp are best played straight, or at least poker-faced. The fun comes when the audience realizes the humor beneath the seriousness. The fun leaves again when the performers call attention to the humor and don't take the seriousness seriously. The Shores company has learned this lesson indifferently. When E.J. Losada takes the stage as Bat Boy, the show works. His pointy ears and vampire teeth help his character, but it's the invisible details that really define this characterization. When Meredith approaches his cage with a bowl of food, Bat Boy struggles with what this means. A threat? A gift? You can see Edgar's inner wheels turning, even if he can only grunt and yowl. Later, when Meredith teaches Edgar English, the words are mere sounds to him until the light goes on in his head and he connects the sounds to meaning.

Losada, who has been working out his acting chops on Shakespeare and O'Neill at the New Theatre, brings a full commitment to a role that's completely absorbing. The same goes for Stacy Schwartz as Meredith. Both find a range of emotions and character contradictions that keep their characters alive. As Meredith's brooding husband, Thomas, Mark Filosa also offers complexity, though as the story progresses, many of his scenes are staged as flat melodramatic villainy. The rest of the ensemble offers little substance, with some performers turning in a range of obvious tedious caricatures that seem more appropriate to a high school skit than a witty grand guignol.

The problem lies not in a lack of talent -- there's plenty of that in evidence -- nor in a lack of resources -- the Shores crew has never been fazed by limited circumstances. It's more a lack of precision and focus. Simone, the Shores' multitalented artistic director/producer, is seriously overextended here. Besides running the theatre, Simone hired himself as show director, actor, set designer, and lighting designer, but little of this work is up to his usual standard. His staging is often inventive, but too many scenes seem sketchy, with the story and character beats indistinct and the primary relationships unexplored. The show suffers from problems with the music: The off-stage four-piece band sounds muddy, and a lot of the lyrics get lost in the big musical numbers. Simone's set design, a black-on-black wall with a second-level platform and a recessed screened inner stage, is functional but lifeless, a decided letdown after his dazzling set work for GableStage's The Goat. The lighting design is equally uninspired. This Bat Boy might have had more bite had Simone not bitten off more than he could chew.

 
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