Flying High on the Wings of BAT BOY

by Paul Recupero

Edgar the Bat Boy (Michael Kane Libonati) enjoys some quality time with his adoptive mother, Mrs. Parker (Jessica O'Brien, at left) and his adoptive sister, Shelley (Sarah Moya at right). (PHOTO CREDIT: Kimberly Reilly)

Opening Day. A three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth led the Phillies to an incredible comeback victory. Needless to say, a different kind of “bat” was on my mind Friday night when I attended Villanova Theatre’s current offering, BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL. On the advice of a friend who had seen the show before, I did no advance research and thus had little idea what to expect (although the cover of the poster hinted that baseball would not be on the agenda).

It’s sometimes noted that the mark of a poor reviewer is the overuse of cheesy puns in an attempt to sound clever. However, I’ve never been one to follow conventional wisdom, so I’ll compromise and allow myself no more than three. I already spent my first in the title of this review. My second is that, simply put, BAT BOY caught me blind-sided.

Villanova’s graduate theatre program is recognized in the Philadelphia area for putting on professional-caliber productions. It’s no stranger to the Barrymore Awards, having earned a slew of nominations in various categories since the ceremony’s inception. And occasionally it hits the jackpot, such as Chicago in 2002, which won three of the nine nominations it received.

BAT BOY, under the capable direction of Valerie Joyce, continues Villanova’s trend of excellent theatre. It’s difficult to describe such a musical, which, while hilarious, cannot be categorized as a simple comedy. My friend called it a combination of Urinetown and Little Shop of Horrors. There’s some truth in her comment, although I would throw Edward Scissorhands into the mix.

During a spelunking expedition in small town West Virginia, ne’er-do-well Rick (Chris Serpentine) captures an aggressive creature lurking in the darkness of the cave. Back on the surface, the locals are confounded as to what Rick found. It looks human, sort of, but in all respects behaves…well, as a bat–hissing, clawing and lashing out at everything. So they lock it in a cage and drop it off at the home of town vet Thomas Parker (Tim Rinehart).

At first, Thomas’s wife Meredith (Jessica O’Brien) and daughter Shelley (Sarah Moya) are not too keen with the notion of caring for a crazed half-human, but they soon warm up to the idea. They quickly turn their efforts to teaching the thing, which they name Edgar, to speak English and develop proper etiquette. After a rough start, Edgar shows a remarkable capacity for learning under their guidance and, like some twisted version of My Fair Lady, transforms into a true gentleman. There’s only one problem: for all of Edgar’s achievements, he can’t seem to conquer his lust for blood…

In the challenging title role, Michael Kane Libonati’s performance is nothing less than exceptional. His varied physical contortions and guttural animal utterances completely captivate. Even in his feral state, he’s able to communicate to some degree with the Parkers, to hilarious effect that must be seen to be believed. And when he makes his miraculous transformation, he reveals not only a tender side but also a superb tenor voice.

Rinehart, O’Brien and Moya showcase powerful vocals and great comic timing, especially Rinehart who relishes in a villainous part filled with melodrama. The same holds true for the ensemble, all of whom play multiple roles, many against gender. The small cast of thirteen delivers beautiful harmonies during the diverse and engaging musical numbers. And the production elements of lighting, choreography, and the multi-platform set are similarly praiseworthy.

BAT BOY’s concept only works if the actors fully commit to the ludicrous plot. Villanova’s ensemble nails it, dishing out outlandish characters and sucking every last nuanced drop (#3) from the smartly-written script. Special mention goes to Serpentine as town bully Rick and Michael Jansen as an outrageous evangelical preacher who also doubles as Rick’s mom.

Joyce’s varied blocking and rapid pacing produce laughs in spades. Standout segments include Meredith’s first attempt to teach Bat Boy to speak, the revelation in Act II of Bat Boy’s origin, and a random song where the actors prance around as animals, which I imagine is how Children of Eden would look in bizarro world.  However, not everything is flippant; the show also serves as a thinly-veiled analogy of how society mistreats the physically deformed and mentally ill. If there’s any fault in the production, it’s contained in the script itself, which ultimately paints itself into an absurd corner it cannot escape from and, as a result, ends awkwardly.

If you go, I recommend sitting in one of the front sections. Villanova features a three-quarters stage. I sat near the center and could see everything perfectly, but the audience in the side sections definitely had obstructed views. Also, this is not a musical for the little ones. A poor girl of five or six clearly was traumatized by the show’s more intense moments (even though most are played for comic effect). Consider this one PG-13.

If you’ve seen BAT BOY before, you don’t need me to convince you of its merit. But others who might be turned off by the uninspiring title or unusual concept should know that this is a rare show that even people who typically don’t enjoy musicals will gleefully sink their teeth into. (That’s 4, damn.)

Book by Keythe Farley & Brian Flemming
Music & Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe
Directed by Valerie Joyce
March 29 – April 17, 2011
Villanova University
Vasey Theatre
800 Lancaster Avenue
Villanova PA 19085

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