FREAK OF THE WEEK
By April Caires
Bizarre antics and a killer grin—Bat Boy is to the Weekly World News what Tom Cruise is to Us magazine: the perennial coverboy, as enigmatic as he is endlessly compelling.
Like the iconic freak himself (Bat Boy, not Tom), Bat Boy: The Musical is also a mixed bag. For all its bizarro bluster, the story bogs down in overly-complicated plot exposition, and—attempting to accommodate the play’s many complex musical numbers—evinces the strained technical capacities of the fledgling Sandbox Theatre Company’s shoestring budget. A musical comedy about pop culture’s most beloved fanged freak is a scrumptiously weird concept, but—like watching Tom Cruise do anything but grin—a disappointment in execution.
The play’s opening scenes bait our hopes: in a West Virginia cave, three teens discover a pasty-skinned boy with a vicious overbite and a set of ears to make Mr. Spock blush. Terrified by the intruders, the “Bat Boy,” as he is soon dubbed, lashes out, biting one of the teenagers in the neck, and landing himself in the caged custody of Dr. Parker (Justin Scott Brown), the town vet. Parker is eager to euthanize the beast—whom his teenage daughter, Shelley (Anna Egenes), has creatively nicknamed “Ugly”—but his do-gooder wife, Meredith (the excellent Stephanie Barnum), insists on turning the cretin into a “proper young man.” This is a challenge, considering Bat Boy’s appetite for ungulates, and his communicative repertoire, which ranges from wailing to grunting to biting. But, khaki slacks and a few dozen BBC language tapes later, the beasty boy has a GED, an English accent, and a real-boy name: Edgar.
With the transformation complete, Meredith stands by Edgar’s side proudly, and young Shelley—crushing hard on those big baby-yellows—begins to rethink that “ugly” moniker. The rest of the town’s good Christian brethren, however, are still freaked by the freak. The girl he bit lingers in intensive care, and, following the suspicious deaths of a few local cows, rumors and suspicions mount. When Edgar—who has found God in the process of becoming civilized—shows up at their annual church revival, the townspeople are forced to put their Christian charity to the test. They fail, and a devastated Bat Boy threatens to become the monster everyone sees him to be.
Deliciously warped one-liners pepper the dialogue, as when Bat Boy is caught sucking on a dead cow’s head, and says shamefully, “I know: I shouldn’t work my problems out with food.” Added to this is a surprising sensitivity, as in the opening ballad, “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” and the genuinely touching “Let Me Walk Among You,” when Bat Boy crashes the church revival and begs to be let in on normal life—carpools, barbecues, ballgames—tenderly crooning to each disgusted parishioner, “Shake my hand/Please, someone shake my hand.”
Bat Boy is compelling both as a twisted comedy and as a revenge-of-the-freak morality tale. Yet (and we’re tempted to revisit the TomKat comparison here) the melodramatic turns prove wearisome. An inordinately complex explanation of Bat Boy’s origins turns into ten minutes of dead weight in the second act, and an abrupt, cop-out ending sucks the last bit of fun out of the freak show. In the end, Bat Boy’s shriek is bigger than its bite.
BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL AT SAN GORGONIO HIGH SCHOOL, 2299 PACIFIC ST., SAN BERNARDINO, (323) 397-2053; WWW.SANDBOXTHEATRECOMPANY.ORG. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. $10. ENDS SUN.