by Anna Rosensweig Halloween is a tricky holiday because it’s a hard one to halfheartedly celebrate. Sure you can show up at a costume party dressed in your usual clothes and some random hat. But it’s guaranteed you won’t have as much fun as your friends who go as Xena the Warrior Princess, a Keebler elf, or a zombie. With Halloween you have to go big or stay home. The folks at Minneapolis Musical Theatre recognize this holiday truism, and with Bat Boy! The Musical deliver a show that takes its goofiness and creepiness farther than I imagined possible, giving those of us who aren’t great at coming up with costumes something thoroughly entertaining to do to for Halloween.
As you might have guessed, Bat Boy is a half-bat, half-boy who very sadly, but also very funnily, feels out of place in the company of both humans and bats. Based on a story from the Weekly World News, this drama of a quasi creature of the night touches on all the familiar tropes of those unfortunate beings who don’t quite belong anywhere, but whose stories teach us much about such time honored themes as friendship, love, and xenophobia. What makes Bat Boy enjoyable is that it so effectively makes fun of these tropes, and of how dependent monster stories are on them.
Bat Boy also pokes good fun at the musical as a genre. The combination of Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming’s book with Laurence O’Keefe’s music and lyrics produces scenes and songs that feel like they are from a classic American musical gone horribly wrong, and I mean that as a compliment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a total fan of musicals, but it’s amusing to see some of the genre’s practices taken to absurd ends. In one of play’s funniest numbers, Meredith Parker (Corey de Danann), the veterinarian’s wife, tries to civilize Bat Boy (Tyler Michaels) by teaching him how to speak and making him identify culturally important places on absurdly huge flash cards. I won’t spoil the great lyrics and visual gags from this scene, but will say that it had me laughing so hard I almost choked on my M&Ms.
Many of the comedic highs in this scene and others come from Tyler Michaels amazing performance as Bat Boy. He flops and flits about the stage in a way that can only be described as, well, batty. His gymnastic contortions are fascinating, and his vocal manipulations hilarious. Michaels is so good at being a bat, he makes Dracula jealous. And the fact that this young talent also has an incredible singing voice reassures me that his formidable talents will be used in other, less niche roles.
Michaels’ complete transformation into Bat Boy paradoxically contributed to my one big problem with the show, which is the second act’s emphasis on telling a convoluted origin story for its fanged hero. The efforts to explain how Bat Boy came to be Bat Boy were tedious distractions from just watching him be, and from watching members of the town try to come to terms with him. The dynamics created by these encounters are far more interesting than the belabored account of Bat Boy’s extraordinary birth. In this vein, Ryan Grimes is particularly good as the huge-chested mother of the three rough-and-tumble adolescents who discover Bat Boy in a cave, and as the Reverend Hightower, a bible-thumping, heathen-healing preacher.
Despite these structural problems, the entire cast and director Steven Meerdink produce a spectacle that is as comically rewarding as it is perverted. Their total embrace of the holiday spirit was infectious, and coming from this Halloween Grinch, that’s saying a lot.