Boston's SpeakEasy Stage Company is one of a legion of regional theatres offering Bat Boy: the Musical this year. Despite having a cult following and being embraced by major critics, this quirky off-Broadway contender couldn't sustain itself after a post September 11th hiatus and folded its wings prematurely last December. As handled here by Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, this production offers a guide for the care and feeding of the little fellow as he re-emerges from caves across the country.
Requirement #1: A small, funky black box space with no audience member more than a few rows from the stage and no sound system to crank up the volume to the point of unintelligibility. It also helps if you have a couple of hardworking Props Masters (Jenn Bean, Nerys Powell), the right prosthetic make-up (Ray Shaffer) and a costume designer (Jenna Rossi) witty enough to put a tapestry kitty vest on the town's vet and sew a PETA patch on Bat Boy's jacket.
Requirement #2: A delightful cast such as the one here, led by newcomers Miguel Cervantes, a recent Emerson College grad, and Sara Chase, still a student at Boston University. He's a charming and convincing Bat Boy as he evolves from primitive to "almost" socially acceptable. She has comic sparkle with a voice to match as Shelley Parker, the teenager fated to love him. Able support is provided by SpeakEasy veterans Michael Mendiola (who spent an entire show trapped in a cave himself as Floyd Collins) and Kerry Dowling (A New Brain, Floyd Collins) plumbing their previously untapped comic gifts as Shelley's parents, Dr. and Mrs. Parker. David Krinitt, Mary Callanan and Austin Lesch also make strong contributions in multiple roles.
Requirement #3: Don't underestimate your audience. Composer Laurence O'Keefe, in a Talkin' Broadway interview, called Bat Boy "a musical for people who hate musicals." To get all the theatrical send ups, however, requires exposure to the last half century of musical theatre, but that didn't lessen the enjoyment of the young people with rush tickets who scurried to occupy empty seats as the show was about to start. Looking more like the kids who wait in front of the Virgin Megastore for the bus to Harvard Square than people who queue up at BosTix, they got things that went right by me.
The show is also a social satire, thanks to the original source material licensed from "Weekly World News," that inspired book writers Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming as well as a homage to B movie sci-fi along the lines of the musical it most closely resembles, Little Shop of Horrors.
The Best Advice: Just do it. The story is absurd and convoluted, its structure often questionable, and seemingly written with little concern for how one might stage it. The joy of this production, however, is that Daigneault and his cast make what may be the most complicated piece I've seen them do look easy and fun.
And make no mistake, O'Keefe knows his stuff. He may have cut his musical teeth at Harvard writing for the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, self-referential musicals long before Broadway started doing them, but he demonstrates his knack, as well as his knowledge and love of, the form. "A Home for You," "Three Bedroom House" and his better than My Fair Lady moment in "Show You a Thing or Two" are the genuine article.
We look forward to more from this composer who has also made his mark with two very well received short pieces written with his wife, lyricist Nell Benjamin, and book writer Julia Jordan. Sarah Plain and Tall for Theatreworks/USA was seen in NYC this past summer and The Mice was their contribution to Hal Prince's 3hree. (O'Keefe can also write long and big as evidenced by his contribution to the epic London musical La Cava, his never mentioned "bat child," but we are willing to overlook that if he promises not to do it again.)
One cautionary note: This is not a musical for people who hate Greater Tuna. For some of us, a little red neck humor goes a long way and swapping bad wigs and headgear to transform instantly from one character and/or gender to another sometimes comes down on the side of camp rather than playfulness. (When done right, using a cast of ten to represent the population of 500 in Hope Falls, West Virginia, is the best commentary of them all on the state of today's theatre.)
And a last bit of advice to the audience: Go with it. The theatre was without air conditioning on this summery October evening, so we slipped into the posh bistro on the corner for what the bartender told us was "his first intermission beer." Always the critic, I can report that India pale ale in a nicely chilled glass is the perfect beer for someone who hates beer. We were refreshed for act two confirming "that everybody goes down well with beer." Even a Bat Boy.
Bat Boy: The Musical is presented by The SpeakEasy Stage Company now through October 26th at the Boston Center for the Arts: BCA Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston. Performance schedule: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 4 PM & 8 PM; Sundays at 3 PM & 7 PM. Box office phone: 617 426-ARTS (2787). There is a $15 student rush, one hour before curtain, if available.