Saturday, May 14, 2016

Tabloid family values struggle to overcome fear in TOTS' "Bat Boy The Musical"

"How's that hopey-changey thing working out for you?" the execrable Sarah Palin once taunted President Obama in the 2012 campaign.

In Hope Falls, W. Va., the fictional hamlet that's the setting of "Bat Boy: The Musical," none too well is the answer. Change is not anything the townsfolk ever seem to want, and when it is visited upon them in the form of the hybrid creature of the title, the very name of the town signals a general plunge into panic. Change without hope equals despair. And that's easy to stew in when the level of civic intelligence is low.

Dr. Parker turns his back on his anxious adopted son, Edgar.
The Theatre on the Square production hits hard on hillbilly stereotypes, a tiresome entertainment target that is refreshed with weirdness in the off-Broadway hit created by Laurence O'Keefe (songs) and Keithe Farley and Brian Flemming (book). That some viable combination of winged mammal and human being is possible was a belief fed by a notorious tabloid feature many years ago. So maybe the real target is our credulity, a flaw that not even hyper-educated urban liberals easily avoid.

TOTS' show, a well-integrated product of the Zack Neiditch-Zach Rosing partnership, will conclude next weekend. Not surprisingly, it was well-honed when I caught up with it Friday night.

At times, the amplification of the singing voices was overwhelming, obscuring passages in the often witty text. Otherwise, there seemed to be nothing amiss about "Bat Boy"; this is hearty entertainment that dances on the brink of grossness and always lands on its feet. In this production, songs smoothly burst out of the dialogue, with a behind-the-scenes band accompanying briskly.

The Taylors gather around the bedside of the bat-bitten Ruthie.
The pathos of being grotesquely different — sentimentalized in "Wicked," proved upon our pulses in "The Elephant Man" — is the message behind the mirth. Always ready to provide justification for intolerance, old-time religion moves into place as the chief threat to the survival of a bat-boy discovered in a cave by dumb-as-rocks members of the Taylor family. (I have to question why the likely Protestants of Hope Falls cross themselves later, but the gesture at least confirms their pious smugness.)

The creature, named Edgar by the family it's delivered to, is nurtured by the village veterinarian and his highly focused wife, played to perfection by Dave Ruark and Mindy Morton. The fault lines in the Parker marriage, explained in a late scene, soon open up a wide path to chaos. The ridiculous Taylors are victims, but others engage our sympathies by the end of the melodrama.

The superficially attractive result of Parker home-schooling, aided by BBC language tapes that make Edgar even more unusual, is undercut by Bat Boy's fondness for warm blood. Food issues are the bane of many of us, so of course we root for Edgar's weaning.

The show's main astonishment emanated from this near-complete transformation, as portrayed with consistent appeal by Justin Klein, progressing from an inarticulate, grunting, flapping, crouched and curled animal to an elaborately polite, multitalented young man who just happens to have fangs and large pointy ears. Costuming and makeup design triumph with Bat Boy, but throughout the production the show's demands for cross-dressing amid multiple roles were well met. The set is a feast for the eyes in its oddly unified, weather-beaten detail, like a Louise Nevelson sculpture designed by a rural scrapyard proprietor.

Reverend Hightower warms up on the way toward healing Edgar.
Daniel Klingler's outsized representation of a caped and white-hatted evangelist made for a mesmerizing start to the second act. Bat Boy's attendance, which the doctor had promised to prevent, tests the revivalist's healing powers and the town's skimpy tolerance, forcing Edgar to plead for acceptance in the show's most moving song, "Let Me Walk Among You."

For staging if not for total vocal security, the woodland ensemble "Children, Children" was another highlight, as Edgar and the Parker daughter Shelley (played with wide-eyed gusto by Devan Mathias) confirm their dangerous mutual love with the approval of a lusty faun and cute hand puppets in well-beyond-Disney canoodling. It's the only milieu of acceptance open to Bat Boy, and it's short-lived. The inevitability of that is what's most believable about this amusing, blood-curdling show.