Joshua David Atkins in University Theatre's Bat Boy: The Musical.
I'll always feel a certain hometown connection to the Weekly World News, the goofy tabloid that used to be good for a few chuckles in the grocery checkout line. In summer 1988, when I was still living in Kalamazoo, Michigan, WWN reported that Elvis was alive and had been spotted in the downtown Burger King, among other places.
Given the public's twin loves of celebrity and utter nonsense, the story attracted international attention and still resurfaces today.
The 1992 tale of Bat Boy, a half-human, half-bat allegedly found in a cave in West Virginia, also lives on. Thanks in part to a truly bizarre graphic -- huge eyes, Nosferatu ears, and a gaping mouth filled with small, pointy teeth -- Bat Boy entered the popular imagination. You've probably seen the comparison to a photo of an overzealous Michele Bachmann making the rounds online.
And now, thanks to UW-Madison's University Theatre, local audiences can take in the 1997 musical based on this pitiful creature's saga. It runs through Saturday, December 10 in Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre.
While a tabloid story might seem like a slim premise to base a musical on, UT's production is a monstrously good time. Dynamic, entertaining and genuinely funny, it should appeal to lovers of irreverent musicals like Urinetown and Avenue Q.
Bat Boy: The Musical takes place in the fictional but tellingly named hamlet of Hope Falls. Spelunkers stumble upon the pale, skinny creature. Startled, he bites one of the cavers, and thus begins his troubled entry into human society. Most of the town rallies against the "freak" while the kindly wife of a veterinarian -- harboring some dark secrets -- sees him not as an animal, but as a boy-in-training.
Joshua David Atkins performs impressively as the title character. Physically, he must alternate between scampering, feral movements and the more refined persona he adopts with the help of Mrs. Parker (Meghan Randolph), who decks him out in a cable sweater vest and kiltie loafers. In one of the play's funnier scenes, she helps him learn to say basic words like "hello" and "boy." Soon, he's speaking with an SAT-worthy vocabulary and the most proper diction in town.
Musical styles range from pop-rock to the gospel-inflected "A Joyful Noise" to an unfortunate but brief bit of rap. Randolph shines during "A Home for You," in which she professes her desire to keep Bat Boy safe, and the ensemble gets things rocking during the splashy "Show You a Thing or Two."
While Bat Boy touches upon classic themes such as the persecuted, misunderstood outsider and fear of the unfamiliar, it's a little unconvincing on that score since it traffics in some stereotypes of its own, such as the mulleted, gun-toting locals.
Ultimately, though, Bat Boy is neither preachy nor malicious. Under the direction of MFA directing student Molly Richards, it's a fun exercise in campy horror. With gender-blind casting and half the cast playing multiple roles, there are wonderfully silly moments as actors shift from one character to another. There are also some strong voices, particularly Scott Harman as the veterinarian and Randolph as his wife.
Onstage accompaniment is provided by a five-member band. Sound for the show needs tweaking; Friday night, the vocals in the first number seemed over-amplified, especially for a small space, and the band sometimes sounded harsh.
Despite some quibbles, Bat Boy is very solidly produced and well worth audiences' time. Just be prepared to have numbers like "Hold Me, Bat Boy" ("sink your fangs into my soul / only you can make me whole") stuck in your head for days.