By Colin Douglas
Scott Weinstein’s magnificent, heart-pounding production of Bat Boy, the 2001 Lucille Lortel Award-winning off-Broadway musical is a definite must-see. It’s a campy, funny, smart laugh fest that overflows with biting social satire, as well as loads of heartfelt empathy for its hero.
Griffin Theatre’s tragicomic musical radiates with high energy and features skilled artists at the top of their game doing what they do best. It’s a collaborative ensemble piece that seamlessly melds together the talents of ten top musical actors with a supporting technical team of superb artists, all guided by one of Chicago’s finest directors.
The play, written by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, is based upon the now infamous, 1992 story published in the supermarket rag, The Weekly World News. It recalls the legend of a young boy found hiding deep in the caves of West Virginia. The feral child, who was said to have fangs and pointed ears, earned himself the nickname, Bat Boy. The play became a musical, with a score and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe (composer of recent Chicago hit, Heathers: the Musical) and went on to become a cult classic.
The musical opens as three young spelunkers, the Taylor teenagers, happen upon a humanoid creature in a cave who, in his fright, attacks and bites one of the kids. Sheriff Reynolds, the local constabulary, captures the deformed boy and brings him to the home of Dr. Thomas Parker, Hope Falls’s veterinarian. Meredith Parker, his wife, pities the Bat Boy, names him Edgar and tries to tame the lad. At first repulsed by the creature, their pretty teenaged daughter, Shelley Parker, ultimately begins to develop feelings for the Bat Boy. When her boyfriend, Rick Taylor, tries to avenge his sister’s attack by stabbing Edgar, Shelley wards off his assault and turns him out of their home.
At the Mayor’s town meeting, the locals raise concerns about having Bat Boy living in their community, and they blame him for the death of their cattle. Meanwhile, Meredith and Shelley have successfully civilized Edgar, teaching him how to speak, behave properly and dress in style. However, Dr Parker has become jealous of his wife’s attention toward Bat Boy and secretly begins enticing Edgar to return to his feral ways by feeding him blood. The events of the play escalate when Shelley and Edgar fall in love and run off together into the forest, where the God Pan encourages them to follow their baser animal instincts. Following their woodland escapade, the citizens follow Edgar and Shelley to the cave, where Meredith and Dr. Parker intercept the violence against the youngsters. There they reveal their secret, perverted account of the Bat Boy’s background before the musical spirals to a tragic Shakespearean climax.
Weinstein, ably assisted by skilled Musical Director Charlotte Rivard-Hoster, has guided his cast of 10 talented actor/singer/dancers forward, creating a top notch professional production. While the majority of the musical takes place all over the rustic, fluid thrust setting, co-designed by Jeff Zmiec and Greg Pinsoneault, Weinstein also makes wise use of the aisles and the bench seating in the audience, delivering the musical into our very laps. Brandon Wardell’s lighting captures all the menace and mood of B horror films. Two of Chicago’s most gifted dancer/choreographers, Rhett Guter and Amanda Kroiss, have staged this production with especially vigorous, energetic and hilarious dance numbers, precisely executed by the cast with snap and starch. The score, which features everything from rock to rap, pop to gospel, crackles to life by five talented, unseen pit orchestra players. Much humor is also derived from Izumi Inaba’s spot-on, tongue-in-cheek costumes and wigs, as well as Mealah Heidenreich’s props and a menagerie of carefully crafted puppets by Lolly Extract and Amber Marsh.
Weinstein’s cast are all fierce, every single one of them a star. In the title role, Henry McGinniss is flawless and captures the Bat Boy perfectly. Sporting pointed ears and vampire incisors, the actor’s sharp, savage, untamed movement and frightened, darting eyes create a skittish, animalistic orphan. Add to this a wonderfully trained singing voice (remembered for standout performances as Link Larkin, in Paramount’s Hairspray, Lucas Beineke in Mercury’s The Addams Family and many other roles) as well as all the right moves as a dancer, McGinniss totally inhabits this role.
Jeff nominated actor Matt W. Miles is terrific as Dr. Parker. Slightly sinister, with so much hurt and humiliation burning inside, Mr. Miles gives a standout performance as Dr. Parker. As his conservatively Christian wife Meredith, Anne Sheridan Smith is strong and stubborn as a woman hell bent on protecting her child. Tiffany Tatreau, who owned the stage in CST’s Ride the Cyclone, and recently converted a number of unbelieving fans in Marriott’s Sister Act, is simply terrific as teenager, Shelley Parker. All three actors, quite believable as a family, possess dynamite voices, as well as powerful acting chops.
The supporting cast are terrific, all of whom play multiple roles, male, female and animal. Kelly Abell is an aggressive Mayor Maggie, Ron Taylor and Clem; Erin Daly is very funny as Ruthie Taylor, as well as Ned; Ron King makes a fetching Mrs. Taylor as well as a dynamic, God-fearing evangelist, the Reverend Hightower. As Sheriff Reynolds, a poor, manipulated authority figure, Michael Kingston (who played Edna in Paramount’s Hairspray) is excellent. Jordan Dell Harris is very good as Bud, but Daisy and the god Pan are his standout performances; and Jeff Meyer is hilarious as Rick Tayler, Mr. Dillon and, especially, as the lovely Lorraine.
This is an impressive, imposing, very funny and thoroughly professional production that could compete with any off-Broadway musical in New York. Superb stage and musical direction, excellent, balanced accompaniment, polished, witty choreography all executed by a top rate ensemble cast— this is an absolute must-see show. In spite of the fact that the musical touches on themes of religion, hypocrisy, revenge, forgiveness and acceptance, with a large dose of irony thrown in, it’s the perfect light, summer entertainment. It’s a brilliant satire of the horror film genre for adult audiences and it deserves a long, successful run.
Griffin Theatre presents Bat Boy through July 24 at the Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Tickets are available by calling the box office at (866) 811-4111 or by online at www.griffintheatre.com.