“Bat Boy” Flies at Northridge

I find Bat Boy: The Musical to be a fun-house ride, more than a little silly.  But I figure that what it’s meant to be.

Bat Boy himself flew out of a supermarket tabloid in 1992, when the editor dreamed up a half-human, half-bat child discovered in a cave.  The issue with his face on it was a best-seller, and he became a minor cult figure.

By 1997, the Actors’ Gang in LA had created the play about him — which played off-Broadway and on London’s West End.  Recently, it  appeared in the Experimental Theatre at Cal State Northridge.

bat boy

Bat Boy is all about tongue-in-cheek.  It belongs on the shelf next to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Little Shop of Horrors.  All three shows are satires, poking fun at horror stories, and at our liking for them.  They also make fun of what they are — musical comedies — and of our fondness for a distinctly odd way of telling a story.

This sounds like fun, and can be.  But it requires an immense amount of skill.

The actors have to be triple threats, as in any musical, able to sing and dance as well as act.  More, they must be able to pull off satire, one of the toughest kinds of comedy.

The CSUN actors, all of them students, are a delightful surprise.
The leads all sing well, almost always strong and clear in the lyrics and in their emotions. (And all the men can sing!  A minor miracle.)

Skylar Keck, in the title role, moves from chiropteric shrieks to ballads and belting with ease.  Aubrie Alexander and Jared Tkocz,
as his adoptive parents, handle huge singing demands well; so does Jessica Patterson, as the girl who falls in love with the alien guest.

Among supporting roles, Nick Bruno (playing both a rancher and the god Pan) and Rachael Johnson (as the Town Council leader and one of the local boys who discover Bat Boy) stand out for the power and clarity of their singing.  Matthew Kesner as Rev. Hightower anchors the revival scene effectively, and Chelsea DiBlasi provides  strong leadership in the ensemble chorus.

The actors also create their characters with consistency, which we  need in order to follow a fast-moving story with so many people.  And they create their characters with belief, which is crucial in a comedy.  Keck and Tkocz are of special note here, creating (in turn) a protagonist and an antagonist whose arcs are as convoluted as  amusement-park rides, but with total commitment.

This is a key point, one sadly missed in the feeble sketch comedy
swamping our screens.  Comic characters must give themselves fully to what they’re doing, and why.  It’s up to us, the audience, to notice the contrast between their earnestness and the follies they’re pursuing.  That’s what makes us laugh.  (Not some celeb bozo breaking the fourth wall and winking, “I’m better than this.”)

In a satire on horror stories, we need characters who totally believe their story, and are utterly horrified by its horrors — leaving it to us to see how silly they are.  (And how silly we are, for sometimes being scared by such things.)  In a satire on musicals, we need actors who sing and dance as if this is what people always do in a crisis — letting us laugh at this preposterous notion.  (And at ourselves, for putting up with it when we watch Wicked.)

The CSUN ensemble does exactly this, and makes their improbable tale work.  We actually weep at the “Let’s learn to love one another” ending, even as we’re smiling at its Hallmarkiness.

Another skill is needed in a musical.  The musicians have to be able to deliver the score — not as a mere performance, as they would in a concert, but as an accompaniment to live singers.  They must be flexible improvisers, adjusting to what’s happening onstage.  (Which is why recorded music works so poorly with live musicals.)

The band, led by music director Philip Matthew Park, plays clearly and well.  And they adjust to the singers well in timing.  However, in many ensemble numbers and a few solos, they overwhelm the singers in volume, making us lose the lyrics.  This seems to be a constant problem when rock bands play behind singers who aren’t doing pop hits the audience already knows.

Given this ensemble’s high level of commitment and performance,
I also find myself wishing for a bit more adventurous choreography.
I suspect this cast, if asked, could do some fun riffs on, say, Agnes DeMille’s balletic square dances in Oklahoma, or Bob Fosse’s tropes and tricks in Cabaret and Chicago.  But alas, as a director I know  there’s not time for everything.  So I say this in tribute to what the company makes me feel, rather than as a critique.

Headline: “Bat Boy flies at Northridge.”  Silly and implausible? Yes, just as it’s meant to be.  Fun, exciting and even a bit moving?  Yes, because the young troupe knows what they’re doing, and they do it well.

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Bat Boy: The Musical, by Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming and Laurence O’Keefe, directed and choreographed by Janet Miller.
Presented by the CSUN Department of Theatre at the Experimental Theatre, Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St.

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