Stillpointe Theatre has a cheeky time bringing Bat Boy to life
By Bret McCabe
When you’re seated for a musical called Bat Boy, you have to expect a little silliness, but the pointy ears are an inspired addition. The musical is based on the infamous and legendary faux news cover story that appeared in a 1992 edition of the Weekly World News tabloid; it chronicled the life of an, ahem, half-bat half-boy creature.
In Stillpointe Theatre‘s entertaining current production, said bat boy is gamely played by Corey Hennessey, who initially appears swaddled in a caveman-ish loincloth, his face blanched in white makeup, his eyes heavily kohled, and his curly hair piled atop his head and cascading across his face as if after the show he has to go front a Love and Rockets or Ratt tribute act. While it took a few minutes to notice them, yes, his ears are made to look like pointy bat ears—and not campy exaggerations, either. Makeup/hair/gore artists Siobhan Beckett, Danielle Robinette, and Jen Tydings do an impressive job of making them look as natural as bat ears on a dude can.
Such painstaking attention to the little details is what makes Stillpointe’s productions so satisfying. Musicals can be such middlebrow affairs, with some version of an operatically overblown Oh! Mia! A Chorus of the Phantom of the Misérable Lion King and the Cats Beast running on Broadway for what feels like my entire life. These productions are things Americans who don’t regularly patronize experimental theater in warehouses space see when they go to New York for dinner and a show, the theater analogs of Pitch Perfect movies and America’s Got Talent nightmares. These manufactured entertainments are designed to appeal to the widest audience as possible, and there’s a considerable degree of difficulty in pulling off broadly comic musical theater without it feeling as wrist-slitting as Elton John singing “Candle in the Wind” for the gazillionth time.
Stillpointe finds ways to do just that again and again, somehow making mainstream pop productions filled with verve, sass, and fun. Stillpointe does that on a DIY theater budget, and the entire creative team, cast, and crew do it with such a enthusiastic competence that you suspect that if given access to the Hippodrome for a run and commensurate funding, the company wouldn’t merely know exactly what it wanted to do with such an opportunity; it has the expertise to pull it off.
Guiding Bat Boy is company co-founding mainstay Danielle Robinette, making her first appearance as director, and she establishes a tone of absurd realism from the get go. The musical—words and music Lawrence O’Keefe, book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, and which premiered in 1997 and opened off Broadway in 2001—uses the tabloid’s creation as a foray into small-town morality.
In fictional Hope Falls, West Virginia, teen burnout siblings Rick (Matthew Casella), Ron (Griffin Stanbro), and Ruthie (Chelsea Paradiso) are exploring a cave when they come across the bat boy, who promptly bites Ruthie on the neck. Rick and Ron knock him out, stuff him in a bag, and drag him to town, where the townsfolk—including sheriff Reynolds (B. Thomas Renaldi), mayor Maggie (Melissa LaMartina), and human laugh riot Lorraine (Kathy Carson), are reminiscing the good old days of coal mining—recoil from the creature and decided to bring to the town vet, Dr. Parker (Troy Koger).
He’s out when the sheriff drops the bagged bat boy off, but Mrs. Parker (Nia Simone Smith) and daughter Shelley (Meghan Taylor) are home. Mrs. Paker names the wild foundling Edgar, Shelley recoils from her mother’s tenderness, and when Dr. Parker comes home, he and his wife fight over whether he should put the Edgar down or not. He’s all for it, she isn’t, and he relents only when she agrees to be with him in an intimate way, and by Dr. Parker’s reaction it’s obvious that’s something they haven’t done in a long, long, long time.
More curious is Dr. Parker’s initial reaction to Edgar—he is and isn’t shocked by his existence. Mrs. Parker ‘Eliza Dolittles’ the bat boy into some semblance of a proper young man, and when he finally does master the intricacies of speech, he has the crisp, polite cadence of a Choate dropout, sounding like either one of the goofy gophers. Indubitably.
But something strange is afoot in the this newfangled nuclear family, and it isn’t just how quickly Mrs. Paker decided to mother Bay Boy Edgar, how prepared Dr. Parker was to euthanize him, or why the town’s cattle keep dying off. Soon Bat Boy is heading into good, old-fashioned melodrama, filled with blood, deception, desire, and murder. This two-act musical plays out like equal parts Edward Scissorhands and Buckwild hyperbole, spiced with flecks of the dark undercurrents found in Flannery O’Conner stories and Gummo.
Luckily, Stillpointe knows how to play up the unseemly without spilling into Grand Guignol camp. Those little details, like the ears, are key in bringing back down to belly laugh, and they pepper the production—from the perfectly timed pop of a beer can’s top to a bit of vulgar prop polishing, from self-aware character reactions to physical/prop comedy bits taking place in the periphery and background of a scene. The entire cast realizes that keeping the audience in on the joke requires a delicate balance of serious absurdity, everybody taking turns playing the fool and the straight man, and a shout here to LaMartina’s expertise at such a see-sawing. She’ll get a gem of a one-liner, pause just long enough to score the laugh, and retreat into being the foil for Carson’s Lorrain, who has Kate McKinnon’s ability to sell a character’s absurdity with little more than a eye bulge.
That everyone can sing keeps the production chugging along. Smith and Sarah Gorman as Mrs. Taylor, mother to Rick, Ron, and Ruthie, shine in the first act, but after Cierra Monae shows up in the second as Reverend Hightower, you’ll be willing to travel across three states to catch her next revival. That everyone can sing may also be the show’s only flaw, which is really just a technical hiccup. The cast is ripe with concert hall voices singing into headset microphones in an intimate church setting, and while band (bassist Greg Bell, keyboard players Stacey Antoine and Charlotte Evans, guitarist Rick Jewett, and drummer Joe Pipkin) is more than capable of keeping up, but sometimes the volume in the tight space muddies the performance. It probably can’t be too fine tuned: the microphones have to handle an actor’s speaking voice and singing range.
But that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise gem of a playful production. Come for the tabloid bat boy, stay for the all-American traditions like the worst secrets being the ones maintained by families, that the best way to maintain the status quo is to commit a crime, and that there’s nothing like an unknown other to bring folks together around a common thirst for each other’s blood.
Bat Boy runs through August 22 at Emmanuel Episcopal Church.