Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011

The Many Layers Of a Musical Batboy

The Greendale Community theatre’s New Show Works On Many Levels

By Russ Bickerstaff
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On the right there was a picture of Jordan Gwiazdowski looking particularly hirsute. On the left there he was completely hairless with fangs and no pigmentation in either eye. It was a poster for Greendale Community Theatre’s production of Batboy: The Musical.  It was snowing opening night. The light dusting wasn’t enough to keep a decent-sized crowd away from the show.

Based on the recurring character from the now defunct Weekly World News, the Batboy musical debuted in Los Angeles in 1997 with Tim Robbins’ Actors’ Gang Theatre. It’s the product of Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming (who wrote the book) and lyricist/composer Laurence O'Keefe (probably best known for the Legally Blonde musical.)

The musical allows Gwiazdowski in the title role the opportunity for hands-down the single most dynamic performance of the season thus far . . .due in large part to the numerous dichotomies that the show rests on.

As a science-fiction musical, Batboy is kind of a rare creature to begin with. The character himself echoes shadows of: Adam—the original “monster,” from Mary Shelly’s original novel Frankenstein, Charlie from Flowers For Algernon and . . . well . . . the Bast from Beauty and the Beast and related fairy tales . . . a character that starts out as an animal, moves to childlike humanity and—in the course of a single song  moves from mute childish animal to a highly articulate gentleman with a British accent.

That single song  (Show You A Thing Or Two) is indicative of the kind of dichotomies at the heart of the musical. On the one hand--it is, of course, utterly ridiculous. The comedy is clever and brilliantly executed in book and lyrics. Beyond that, there’s enough practical structure to the education of Batboy over the course of the song to make it almost vaguely believable—there’s no magic here, simply patience and persistence on the part of Batboys mother-figure (Laura McDonald in the GCT production.) The emotional reality of this in the GCT production is one of the better-executed bits of drama in the production.

There’s an emotionality to the song that moves along the story. Batboy’s transformation brings out different transformations in his adoptive family, including a paternal Dr. Parker (played with dark, slightly crazed charisma by Matt Zeman) and his romantic interest (played with strikingly beautiful emotional poise by Stephanie Staszak.) A deeply comic scene that also works on a kind of dramatic logic that also moves along the emotional impact of the story is refreshingly complex for a Broadway-style musical. It’s a complexity that Batboy manages to hit quite often, making it one of the better musicals to emerge from the past couple of decades. 

The above text might give one the impression that the show has an inflated sense of self-importance. It doesn’t. This is a show that never takes itself too seriously. The opening theme establishes this quite well, speaking in grandiose terms about the almost Christ-like significance of the character, the show is clearly making fun of itself right into the first dance number . . . but beyond that, there is an understanding that even the trappings of shlocky sci-fi—even a story of a half-man/half-bat has something to explore in the darker regions of the human psyche. That it is able to do this without ever feeling aggressively preachy is a huge accomplishment. Batboy openly embraces the ghetto of the sci-fi genre to render a compelling story that can be taken as a light comedy or explored at greater depth.

The basic mechanics of the musical end of the musical are competently rendered by Laurence O'Keefe . . . but there’s nothing terribly haunting or catchy about the music. It works as a sort of operatic score that characters happen to be singing and dancing to. It’s not actually bad—just not enough to live up to the complexity of the story. It’s refreshing to see the music used to render a mood more in the style of an operatic motion picture score. Some of the songs feel more like cinematic music cues with lyrics. Choreography is only used where it makes stylistic sense. Far more compelling for me that the touring production of Mama Mia I saw earlier this week . . .

Greendale Community Theatre’s staging of Batboy: The Musical runs through January 15th at the Greendale High School Auditorium. A comprehensive review of the production runs in the next issue of Shepherd-Express.

 

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