As the audience is seated in the theater at Main Street Arts they find themselves surrounded by the walls of a cave somewhere deep in the heart of Appalachia. In the dim light they see teenage explorers being attacked by a horrible half-human monster. What happens next? Show tunes, of course! Welcome to "Bat Boy: The Musical."
Based on the "Weekly World News" tabloid stories, "Bat Boy" may be the weirdest musical show the Saxtons River -based art center has ever put on stage. It is also a brilliant, entertaining bit of work designed to keep the audience off balance. Are we being asked to accept differences, even outrageous differences, or are the creators pulling our legs the whole time? Don't be surprised if you leave the theater not being sure. Throughout the show the audience is challenged to accept a series of ever more ludicrous situations at face value.
We soon learn that our monster, a half-bat, half-human hybrid (Liam Johnson), has been captured. What should the community do with him? The townspeople admit that they "stripped him of his dignity/They beat him like a gong/And he was kicked repeatedly/And that was wrong!/So wrong!" But, as events unfold, it doesn't seem that they feel the slightest remorse for their actions.
The local sheriff (Mark Tullgren) rescues Bat Boy from the mob and brings Bat Boy to the home of the local veterinarian, Dr. Parker (Michael Duffin) and his wife, Meredith (Elizabeth McCawley). Meredith connects initially with Bat Boy in a musical duet and subsequently affects a miraculous transformation that recalls "My Fair Lady," "Young Frankenstein," and the old Helen Keller biopic, "The Miracle Worker." Things get complicated when their daughter Shelly (Ally McGahie) and Bat Boy fall in love. It's an "abomination," but not for the reasons anyone appreciates. In the meantime there is an attempted faith healing, a cow epidemic, and more.
Under David Stern's direction, Bat Boy avoids making condescending fun of country hill people and their supposed narrow-mindedness. The show emphasizes the humanity of all the participants, even the show's villains. The result is a mix of goofy and serious moments that can be quite disconcerting. Instead of the froth of a typical musical comedy the audience is treated to a show that can feel like a tragic opera co-written by William Shakespeare and the cast of Monty Python.
Plenty of subtle jokes are buried in the text and lyrics. Does the ideal suburban home really need "a large pit bull on a chain"? We witness surreal moments involving drag cheerleaders, a cow's head and the god Pan. My favorite moment featured a fanged Hamlet pondering his fate and that of the delicious bunny he's holding. Still, almost every bizarre character is deeply sympathetic and even the most inappropriate situations are treated as completely understandable. As a result, the audience is asked to consider a level of tolerance many people may not be prepared to give, and that's the point. It's easy enough to laugh at the prejudices of southern country evangelicals, but what about our own?
If this all sounds like a lot to ask of an off-Broadway musical farce being performed by a community theater troupe, it probably is. However, both the director, cast, and musical team deliver the goods.
The music is superb. Songs like "Three Bedroom House," "Children, Children," and "Let Me Walk among You," are straightforward, simple and wonderful. MSA's extraordinary four-piece pit band adds mightily to the show's quality. They combine intense musicality with lightning fast reaction to the events on (and off!) the stage.
The show's staging is far more adventurous than anything seen in typical amateur productions. Sometimes the audience and stage are fully in the dark with the characters lit only by flashlights. At other moments the action takes place in the middle of the audience with the house lights on.
The principals among the amateur cast are generally quite good and several are exceptional. Liam Johnson as the Bat Boy certainly makes the most of his star turn. With a voice that reminds one of the young David Bowie, the sixteen year-old Brattleboro native gives his monster an outraged humanity even as he insists he is more beast than man. He is ably backed up by a cast of principals including Allie McGahie who has a Broadway-worthy voice and stage presence to match. Monica Lauritsen's big-voiced Pan is only onstage for a few moments but she owns her moment too. The always-wonderful Elizabeth McCawley provides important support as does Michael Duffin, the vet with a terrible secret. Supporting actors Loakim Gingras, Mark and Marilyn Tullgren, dancer-choreographer Helen Smith, Ashten Vogtrigger, Eric Robinson, Victor Brandt, and Cooper Newell all fully embrace their various roles and the chorus members are consistently fun to watch.
If you don't know Main Street Arts, this production will serve as a good introduction to an outrageously ambitious community arts organization worth getting to know better. Bat Boy will run continue to run from March 10-13. Go online at mainstreetarts.org for more information.