Batboy: The Musical

As long as it has its mind squarely on fanged freaks, horror cliches, and musicals it can shamelessly riff off, 'Batboy: The Musical' is one bloody good time

Arts Review

Batboy: The Musical

Arts on Real, through July 2

Running time: 2 hrs, 10 min

To look at him peacefully hanging upside-down in his cage, his long, curly locks dangling from his scalp and eyes staring vacantly ahead (calling to mind a certain deaf, dumb, and blind kid, at least when Roger Daltrey was playing mean pinball), you'd think this so-called Batboy wouldn't hurt a fly. Well, OK, maybe a fly. Or a medium-sized dog. (Those intimidating incisors don't look like they're just for show.) The point is, he doesn't look like the monster he's been made out to be. But never underestimate the power of fear. Even when Batboy is cleaned up, dressed, and made, like Eliza Doolittle, into a flawless speaker of the Queen's English (replete with upper-class British accent), there are still some townsfolk in Hope Falls who see him as a freak whose differences threaten the natural order. They're able to provoke Batboy to an act of violence that – shades of Tony in West Side Story! – shatters his dream of settling down with the girl he loves and makes him a hunted man. Er, boy. Er, batboy.

If there were such a thing as drive-ins for plays, Batboy: The Musical would make a great double bill with Little Shop of Horrors. Like that show, Batboy takes its inspiration from mid-20th-century fright films, where monstrous stand-ins for our sublimated desires rampage through society's strict moral codes. Both strip-mine the source material for themes of alienation and acceptance, then recycle the rest for camp value. Stock characters are boiled down to comic types, the melodrama is amped way over the top, and the piling up of bodies – oops, here comes another one – is played for laughs. And, of course, everyone is singing as they go the way of all flesh. It's the haunted mansion as fun house.

Naughty Austin Artistic Director Blake Yelavich gets the joke and serves it up in clever, crisply executed style here. From the opening in a dark cavern, lit only by lamps on the miner's helmets worn by the actors; to the Parker family home, where Batboy gets his first taste of civilization in a basement convincingly suggested by a stairway and moody lighting; to the flashback depicting Batboy's birth, staged behind a hole in the curtain cut and painted to look like the frame of a painting, Yelavich tweaks the material in playful, theatrical ways. With brisk pacing to complement this smart staging and striking musical direction by Dennis Whitehead, the production really, ahem, takes wing.

Yelavich is helped immensely in this by his leading man. Er, bat. Oh, never mind. Tyler Rhodes starts out as a drooling beast, with droopy hands held up to his shoulders like feeble vestigial wings, his face slack in happy idiocy, and in the space of a single song, evolves into an articulate, sensitive, Oxford grad, more refined than royalty. (Take that, 'Enry 'Iggins!) As ridiculous as the character is in such moments, Rhodes still projects a kind of quiet dignity and sympathetic air. There's something genuine in his longing to be accepted, and when he finds it, in the person of young Shelley Parker, the veterinarian's daughter – Larissa Wolcott, channeling teen angst in all its roiling rebelliousness and raging hormones – you almost wish they could fly away together to a cave all their own, there to raise a brood of orthodontically challenged rugbats.

But it's not to be; we know such stories are destined to end badly, even when they're musical spoofs. Sure enough, the match is vigorously opposed by Shelley's mom – Toni Smith, as a classic Fifties suburban hausfrau, her brow as wrinkle-free as her pressed pink dress – and leading the charge to have Batboy put down is Shelley's dad (Grady Basler as Ward Cleaver with a twist of Doc Frankenstein). And before the curtain falls, the stage is littered with more bodies than a Danish court. Still, for all the mayhem, it's really rather entertaining.

The only time the show falters is when neither play nor production can decide how campy to be. At times, it feels as if Batboy creators Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming, and Laurence O'Keefe forgot they were penning a show based on a tabloid headline in the Weekly World News. They try adding dimension to the characters, which sucks the air out of the satire and makes for awkward shifts in tone that Yelavich and the cast struggle to accommodate, not always smoothly. But as long as the show has its mind squarely on fanged freaks, horror cliches, and musicals it can shamelessly riff off (or rip off), Batboy is one bloody good time.

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Batboy:The Musical, Little Shop of Horrors, West Side Story, Weekly World News, Tyler Rhodes, Dennis Whitehead, Larissa Wolcott, Toni Smith, Grady Basler, Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming, Laurence O'Keefe

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