Bat Boy: The Musical

Story and book by Keythe Farley and Brian Fleming, music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe
Cambridge University Broadway Savoyards
C Too

When I saw the West End production of Bat Boy: The Musical last year, I was floored by the originality of both the music and text of this show. The all-singing, all-dancing tale of how, 'in a cave many miles to the south/lived a boy born with fangs in his mouth' fused biting satire on down-home American living with high-cost West End production values.

The news that Bat Boy would be coming to the Fringe this year therefore gave me a mixed reaction - if it was done well, this show would blow Edinburgh audiences away with its spunk and vivacity. If done poorly, it was going to be laughably upsetting.

Arriving a few minutes early at the venue, and having collected my tickets earlier in the day so as not to observe things incognito, I happened to overhear director Chris Adams giving some last-minute notes to his cast. Apparently the show needed to be paced up a bit and tightened. I was encouraged when I heard a few cast members going through bars of their songs, and realized there was actually a chance these guys (and gals) had the voices to back up Laurence O'Keefe's rather demanding songs.

Within a few seconds of the opening number beginning, this was confirmed beyond a doubt. The standout voices in the production belonged to Alexandra Spencer-Jones as Meredith Parker, who takes the deformed bat child into her home and her heart, and Holly Morgan as her daughter Shelley. As in the West End production, these two women had strong and complimentary voices in addition to stellar performance abilities. As the title character, Tom Johnson showed brilliant physicality and a strong voice, while Colin Richardson did a fantastic job as the malevolently unhinged, jealous Dr Parker. Rory Mullarkey also deserves special mention for the sheer comic chutzpah exhibited during Rick Taylor's rap number.

Most comics know that timing is everything, and when playing with O'Keefe's lyrics this is definitely the case. The cast didn't miss a beat in rhythmically complicated numbers like 'Christian Charity' and 'Comfort and Joy.' They portray the tongue-in-cheek numbers with straight faces (even in the face of audience members reduced to near-hysterics), with Rob Heard stealing the scene as Pan in the number 'Children Children' (a surreal back-to-nature scene which I had forgotten was a part of the story until about thirty seconds before it started).

The intimate setting also lets audience members to connect more with the characters on a human level, opening up the meaning and bringing clarity to some aspects of a show which, at the Shaftsbury, became at times muddled and difficult to follow. During 'Let Me Walk Among You,' a song which had previously seemed simply like a plea for understanding, it occurred to me that the song also highlights the importance of not trying to fit in with people on their terms, but on your own - ultimately, Shelley's acceptance and love for the Bat Boy includes, rather than being in spite of, his appearance, diet, and personality foibles. The message here is to be yourself and allow the people who will accept you near while not making compromises for those who don't want to understand you on your own terms.

That the Savoyards can take a show which at the Shaftsbury relied heavily on spelunking, gory effects, man-sized cages, and acrobatics and successfully perform it in a room with a few props and about ten minutes' get-in time is a testament both to the strength of the book and the dedication of this company. The only 'complaint' possible is that at times it's a bit difficult to hear the voices over swelling music, but that should be easily fixed with a twiddle or two of the sound levels.

Meanwhile, one only hopes the cast - especially Morgan, Spencer-Jones, and Johnson - can keep up their stunning vocal performances over the next three weeks. A few other voices seemed to be showing early signs of strain, and one hopes that won't become more of an issue in later performances, as this is a musical that, more than most, can be made or ruined by the ability of the cast to keep up with O'Keefe's challenging score.

Thus far, though, they're doing just fine - and despite the late time slot, their excellent performance should earn them dedicated audiences throughout the Fringe, as soon as word starts getting out.

Reviewer: Rachel Lynn Brody

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