If it weren’t for the Musical Theatre Guild, Southern California audiences might never have had the chance to see and hear bygone Broadway shows like this season’s 70, Girls, 70 (1971), Little Me (1962), and One Touch Of Venus (1943), or last season’s Stop The World, I Want To Get Off (1962), Fade Out Fade In (1964), High Spirits (1964), and Irma La Douce (1960)—and for that, musical theater fans owe MTG a sincere debt of gratitude.

Still, there’s a reason why the above chestnuts are so rarely produced, and MTG’s “Concert Staged Readings” are often worth seeing more for the company’s superb performances than for the material itself, Fade Out Fade In and Little Me being noteworthy exceptions.

Occasionally, though, MTG stages more recent musicals like Hello Again, Violet, The Fix, A Man Of No Importance, and The Wild Party, shows that are rarely produced by CLOs leery of their edginess, adventurousness, and adultness. These are musicals that allow MTG artists to sink their creative teeth into material at the level of their talents, and the result has been some of the most exciting evenings of musical theater in memory.

Such is the case with Bat Boy: The Musical, a show whose blend of “slapstick, surrealism, camp-horror and irony” and whose themes of “hypocrisy, acceptance, forgiveness, racism, revenge and scapegoating” (the quotes are from Wikipedia) would seem to make it an unlikely choice for a Civic Light Opera season, but a perfect season closer for MTG.

Bat Boy: The Musical takes the half-boy/half-bat creature introduced to the world on the tabloid pages of Weekly World News and makes him the hero of an Edward Scissorhands-like story. Like Edward, Bat Boy is adopted into an American family, earns the acceptance of the community with his charm and sincerity (at least for a while), and possesses sharp body parts unlikely to make friends among the townsfolk.

Edward Scissorhands played it considerably straighter than does Bat Boy: The Musical, whose creators Laurence O’Keefe (music and lyrics) and Keythe Farley (book co-writer with O’Keefe) are responsible for the musical’s oh-so tongue-in-cheek approach. (The redneck ranchers where Bat Boy lives are so dumb, they try to raise cows on the side of a mountain.)

O’Keefe and Farley conceived Bat Boy: The Musical as a vehicle for ten triple-threats, with half of the cast members playing multiple, gender-bending roles. Virtually everyone is onstage throughout the show in one capacity or another, multiple role and costume changes, numerous production numbers, and a couple dozen songs making this one of the most challenging MTG musicals ever.

As with all Musical Theatre Guild productions, the production reviewed here is what Actors Equity dubs a “Concert Staged Reading.” Basically this means two things—no more than 25 hours of rehearsal and scripts held firmly in hand, and while other companies might settle for performers standing in front of microphones and singing from the script, about the only way you can guess that an MTG production isn’t a fully-staged one are those hand-held scripts (only occasionally referred to) and a minimal set, lighting, and costume design.

Knowing the above, any audience member present at Monday’s one-night-only performance of Bat Boy: The Musical could not have helped but be astonished by the accomplishments of its ten stellar performers. Under Joel Bishoff’s imaginative direction, complex blocking was flawlessly executed, character and costume changes made with impeccable timing, and songs performed as if the cast had been singing them for months.

The title role gave tall, dark, and handsome triple-threat Jeffrey Christopher Todd his biggest MTG role to date, and one he positively dazzled the crowd with, first as the bizarrely contorted Bat Boy discovered by a trio of teen spelunkers, and later as the erudite Oxfordian scholar (renamed Edgar) who only wanted love and acceptance—all in all delightful, touching, memorable work.

Supporting Todd as Bat Boy’s adoptive mother was the inimitable Cynthia Ferrer (Happy Days’ Mrs. Cunningham herself), whose trademark quirky delivery made every line and lyric a gem. As Shelley, Melissa Lyons Caldretti made for a cute-as-a-button love interest for Edgar, with a crystal-clear soprano to match any Galinda you might have seen. Kevin Symons was another standout as the dastardly Dr. Thomas Parker, as was Roy Leake, Jr. as the well-meaning Sheriff Reynolds.

As for the remaining five cast members, each and every one deserves a wow for scene-stealing work in multiple roles: Dina Bennett as rowdy spelunker Ron, mayor Maggie, and townsman Clem; Chris Warren Gilbert as Shelley’s unruly boyfriend Rick, townswoman Lorraine, and rancher Mr. Dillon; Scott Harlan as Rick’s mother, townsman Roy, faith healer Reverend Billy Hightower, and Institute Man; Shauna Markey as Bat Boy bite victim Ruthie and rancher Ned; and Erik McEwen as townswoman Daisy, rancher Bud, a doctor, and Pan (yes, that Pan, the Greek god of nature). Of the above, McEwen deserves special mention for his center-stage showmanship and vocal chops as satyr Pan in an Act Two woodland fantasy sequence as imaginative and hilarious as they come.

Kirsten Chandler’s choreography was as clever as it gets (with tributes to Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, and Jerome Robbins) and more abundant than in most MTG shows, making the cast’s perfectly synched dance performances all the more noteworthy. (On a side note, the choreographer/mom was seen leaving the theater with a number of stuffed animals in hand, following their ingenious use throughout the show.)

Musical director Matthew Smedal led the terrific onstage orchestra on keyboard, joined by Alby Potts on keyboard 2, Brian Reardon on guitar, John Belzaguy on bass, and Brian Boyce on drums. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg and AJS Costumes deserve special snaps, especially for the headgear which made so many character changes possible. Art Brickman was production stage manager, with Christopher Rosko and Jessica Standifer assistant stage managers. Production coordinators for Bat Boy: The Musical were Eileen Barnett and Kim Huber.

Bat Boy: The Musical may have had its first and last performance (if you missed it, that’s the way the bat bites), but more exciting shows are on the way in MTG’s upcoming season, starting with High Fidelity (2006), and followed by Fanny (1954), Little Women (2005), A New Brain (1998), and Shenandoah (1975). All but two are one-night only affairs, so this is one case where if you snooze, … you’ll lose out on some terrific evenings of musical theater.

–Steven Stanley

June 13, 2011

The Alex Theatre, Glendale

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