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Theatre in Review: Bat Out of Hell (City Center)

William Branner, Andrew Polec, Tyrick Wiletz Jones. Photo: Little Fang Photo

Bat Out of Hell once again raises the most vexing question about jukebox musicals: Why do they exist? I'm not talking about the biographical shows, like Jersey Boys, Beautiful, and Ain't Too Proud, which often have successful runs -- largely, I suspect, because they allow fans to enjoy their favorite stars' origin stories combined with greatest-hits playlists rendered with tribute-act fidelity. I'm referring instead to musicals that wrap original books around beloved rock/pop catalogs. Yes, Mamma Mia! was a mother of a blockbuster, but for that show's imitators, Broadway has been a boulevard of broken dreams: Good Vibrations, All Shook Up, Hot Feet, Holler If Ya Hear Me, Escape to Margaritaville, and Head Over Heels all too quickly vanished, having failed to capture the target audiences that producers imagined existed for them. Bat Out of Hell once again sets one to wondering: Are the fans of Jim Steinman's power ballads so eager to hear them performed live that they will tolerate the turgid storyline that showcases them here?

Set in Obsidian, a horror-show-future vision of Manhattan that makes Fritz Lang's Metropolis look like Saint Tropez in high season, Bat Out of Hell (book by Steinman, with an assist from Stuart Beattie) takes place after something called The Chemical Wars, which produced a generation of mutants, "their DNA frozen at the age of eighteen. That's why they're called The Freezers!" as someone breathlessly puts it. The city is ruled by Falco, an evil real-estate developer (if that's not redundant) -- an amusing occupation, to put it mildly, since the streets are uniformly reduced to rubble. (Clearly, he has his work cut out for him.) The one exception to this urban hellscape is the forbidding skyscraper where Falco lives with Sloane, his narcotized, bibulous spouse, and Raven, their antsy, angst-ridden daughter. You can tell that Raven is depressed because she enters the room, flops on the couch, and rolls onto the floor, where she ends up with her legs in the air.

Falco hates The Lost -- "Can you believe they tried to destroy my new housing project?" he complains, practically bursting a vein -- unaware that Raven is smitten with their leader, Strat, whose hobby is taking off his shirt. Strat, making eyes at Raven, says, "On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?" With a pickup line like that, what girl wouldn't get carried away? Strat is also given to poetry slam-style epiphanies: "Lost boys stalk the street with those jungle markings on their chests. Barbarians prowl in shadows, their heads rocking with rodents. Motorcycles reproduce in nocturnal alleys groaning with greasy pleas." He's a regular Allen Ginsberg, that one.

The plot -- which involves so many people sneaking in and out of Raven's bedroom that you have to wonder why the family doesn't move to a higher floor -- includes kidnapping, a wild motorcycle ride, death, resurrection, betrayal, and God knows what else -- all of it equally nonsensical. Jay Scheib, the director, allows his design team to run wild with concert-touring gimmicks, like innumerable blinder cues and random bursts of confetti, but he rarely gins up much excitement. Jon Bausor's hulking, ugly scenery is frequently used as a projection screen for the imagery of video designer Finn Ross. Weirdly, many scenes taking place in Raven's second-floor bedroom (often behind a scrim) are delivered via video to various surfaces, including a giant billboard; watching Bat Out of Hell is often disconcertingly like attending a drive-in movie. (The video effects used in the motorcycle chase that ends Act I are, admittedly, exciting.) Bausor's costumes, based on Meentje Nielsen's originals, are intentionally vulgar, many of them designed to be taken off as efficiently as possible. (The look for The Lost might best be described as Godspell meets Starlight Express.) Patrick Woodroofe's lighting, when not assaulting the audience's retinas, creates some stark and attractive looks, especially a tricolor wash based on the hues of a traffic light. Gareth Owen's sound design is much louder than the Broadway norm, but it retains a solid clarity. This is not always helpful, given the way the songs are shoehorned into the libretto. For example, Strat sings to Raven, "And we're sinking deeper and deeper in the chilly California sand," while standing in what looks like the mouth of a sewer.

As Strat, Andrew Polec leans pretty hard on a single slack-jawed, pop-eyed expression, but his voice is powerful enough to rattle the highest chandelier in City Center; the same is true of Christina Bennington as Raven, who alternates sulking with belting. Both are clearly talented and without characters to play, and maybe we'll see them again sometime. The clear standout among the supporting players is Danielle Steers as Zahara, who is both a member of The Lost and the Falcos' maid, for reasons I can't begin to explain; anyway, she has plenty of presence and a kicky Cher-style voice. You have to feel for the popular Broadway pros Bradley Dean and Lena Hall, as Falco and Sloane, whose corruption has seemingly left them dissipated and impotent. ("You were a dazzler!" she says, recalling their wild youth. "A big old S-T-D! I mean S-T-U-D! A real stud!") Delivering "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," he is made to mount her on top of a Corvette; next to them a line of dancers engages in a routine uncannily reminiscent of the Jane Fonda Workout, while a camera operator, dressed in a referee's uniform, captures the simulated sex action, delivering it to the billboard, where it is intercut with vintage footage of baseball players sliding into second base. Well, it's a living.

Seeing Bat Out of Hell, the apocalyptic future that concerned me most was that of the Broadway musical. Somewhere during yet another overheated dance routine -- my companion commented that the choreography, "adapted by Xena Gusthart" (from what?), reminded her of Satan's Alley, the unhinged musical featured in the John Travolta film Stayin' Alive -- I began having visions of myself, twenty years hence, sitting in a New York theatre, seeing 7 Rings: The Selena Gomez Musical. Don't think it can't happen.

Which brings us back to my original question: Why do people continue to pursue these follies when they so often end in tears? (Moulin Rouge, currently burning up the box office, isn't the same thing; picking and choosing its score from many sources, it doesn't feel the need to produce signature hits whether they suit the story or not.) Some of the songs in Bat Out of Hell are fun, and evocative if you are of a certain age group. But if you're going to expend the blood, sweat, and tears needed to make a musical, why not forgo borrowed goods for something original? You never know -- you might end up with another Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen on your hands. --David Barbour

(9 August 2019)

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