The winner of the 2001 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical has, at long last, come to Chicago. Bat Boy: The Musical, in a triumphant Chicago premiere by Griffin Theatre Company, is full of verve, camp and heart. Based on a story that originally appeared in the tabloid The Weekly World News, and with a book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, this bizarre musical offers audiences more than their fair share of laughs, twists and turns. Laurence O’Keefe’s music is catchy and his lyrics are fraught with absurd wit; whether the company is singing one of the show’s large, ensemble numbers or a tender duet, the actors perform with dedication and skill.
It all begins when a couple of local teenagers stumble across a strange creature in the depths of a cave. Their flashlight beams wash over the audience as the mysterious figure darts in and out of the aisles, startling more than one viewer on the performance I saw. The aura of fright remains for a few more moments as the bat-eared, bare-chested beast bites one of the teenagers. However, things quickly transition from foreboding and spooky to delightfully kooky as the ensemble joins the trio on stage to perform the opening number, “Hold Me Bat Boy.” The song sets the scene for the action that will unfold, touching on some of the play’s themes of acceptance while executing choreographer Rhett Guter’s wily combination of on-the-nose symbolism and camp (who knew hand bats could be so fun?).
Things get more complicated when the newly captured Bat Boy (Henry McGinniss) is brought to Hope Falls’ veterinarian, Dr. Parker (Matt Miles). The expectation is that Parker will euthanize the misunderstood creature; however, obstacles arise when Parker’s wife, Meredith (Anne Sheridan Smith) and daughter, Shelley (Tiffany Tatreau) take the beast under their wing. In these four roles, McGinniss, Miles, Smith and Tatreau show great talent. McGinniss’ turn as Bat Boy is physically layered and brimming with comedy and pathos, while Tatreau’s take on Shelley is a winning mixture of naïveté, hormones and gumption. As husband and wife, Miles and Smith excel as a pair of mismatched and misunderstood lovers, helping ground some of the more human aspects of the show, especially in the second act.
Director Scott Weinstein and his cast of 10 perform rapid scene and character changes with unrelenting energy, careening the audience through all of the musical’s weird and wacky events. Ron King’s hysterical portrayal of an angry mother and a traveling, evangelical preacher is just one example of the ensemble’s success doubling as diverse characters. The staging, too, is fluid, and keeps the action moving as locations shift beneath Jeff Kmiec and Greg Pisoneault’s cavernous, mine shaft-like set and Brandon Wardell’s colorful lighting design. Under Charlotte Rivard-Hoster’s sharp music direction and the support of Christopher Kriz’s sound design, the singers can be heard and appreciated.
Bat Boy: The Musical presents one of the stranger stories to ever be staged, riffing on and subverting a wide range of archetypes and tropes while remaining wholly original. Weinstein’s production pulls out all the stops—fake blood, shadow puppetry, audience interaction—in staging the musical oddity, while his talented ensemble performs the material within an inch of its life. The resulting experience is part camp, part allegory, all fun.
Bat Boy: The Musical runs Thursdays through Sundays at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., through July 24. Running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes, with one intermission. Single tickets are available at www.griffintheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.