Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Even on a Tragic Day, Griffin Theatre’s Bat Boy Demonstrates Delectable Bite — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bat Boy: The Musical
Griffin Theatre at The Den Theatre
Thru July 25

Like a great friend, great art—or even just great entertainment—can make both the good times and bad times better.

This past Sunday morning, I woke up to hear the devastating news about the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Although sad news is a daily occurrence, and mass shootings all too common, the slaughter of 49 people out for a night of dancing—with 53 more injured—is something no one with a heart & soul could easily shrug off.

I can’t say I felt much in the mood for a Sunday matinee, but had been quite anticipating the professional Chicago premiere of Bat Boy: The Musical, a show I saw and loved, somewhat unsuspectingly, on a trip to London in 2004. (I had also seen an Oak Park Village Players production in 2009.)

So, glad to have been granted an invitation for the Press Opening, I arrived at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Ave. with a good deal of melancholy mixed into my mindset, but smiled as soon as I saw the show curtain.

It essentially recreated the Weekly World News tabloid front page from 1992, with a headline and story about a BAT BOY FOUND IN WEST VIRGINIA CAVE.

This served to not only inform the uninitiated that this Bat Boy show had nothing to do with baseball or Batman, but to set the occasionally (but not overly) campy tone employed by the performers under the direction of Scott Weinstein.

From the opening number, “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” the show with music & lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe—who was later responsible for Legally Blonde: The Musical—has enough solid songs to be a legitimately likable musical.

So while calling it campy may foster connotations that don’t do it qualitative justice, I like how the show, and particularly this rendition, never takes itself too seriously.

Henry McGinniss seems just about perfect in embodying the titular Bat Boy, who is christened Edgar after being taken in, then educated and gentrified, by a local family consisting of the local veterinarian Dr. Taylor (Matt Miles), his wife Meredith (Anne Sheridan Smith) and their teenage daughter, Shelley (Tiffany Tatreau).

I found Smith to be quite vocally strong on “Mrs. Taylor’s Lullaby,” while Tatreau is terrific, as she has been in a succession of shows I’ve seen lately (Ride the Cyclone, Spring Awakening, Sister Act). 

Perhaps prompted by budgetary and cast-size constraints—I don’t recall if it was previously done this way—I like how director Weinstein has a few of the actors (Jeff Meyer, Jordan Dell Harris, Ron King) occasionally donning wigs to play female townsfolk, while alternately embodying male characters.

King especially steals every scene he’s in, while the rest of the cast is also quite appealing, including Michael Kingston as the local Sheriff and Erin Daly as the Mayor and assorted others.

Abetted by some quirky, inspired choreography by Rhett Guter and Amanda Kroiss, several of the numbers are positively delightful, including “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” “Christian Charity,” “Another Dead Cow” and “Show You a Thing or Two,” whereupon Edgar cites a litany of cultural references to illustrate the depth of his newfound literacy.

I can’t say I ever forgot what had happened in Orlando as I was watching the show, but it’s a testament to caliber the material, performers and production that I was able to thoroughly enjoy it, nonetheless.

And while such a distressing real-life prism would likely have reflected on anything I may have seen that afternoon, I couldn’t help but appreciate considerable relevance and resonance in the Bat Boy’s initial ostracization for being different, and his touching struggle for acceptance amid a close-minded community.

After originally seeing Bat Boy: The Musical in London in 2004—it world premiered in 1997 and ran Off-Broadway in 2001, but never On-—I imagined that some hip North Side theater could have quite a hit, and perhaps a long run, with it, particularly around the period when the similar themed Wicked was packing them in during a sit-down run in the Loop. While there was a good-sized, highly enthusiastic, often LOLing crowd at the Den Theatre on Sunday afternoon, I doubt this production is primed to capture such caché.

But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. For even amid great darkness, Bat Boy: The Musical showed that it's quite something to be seen.

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