Sunday, August 25, 2019

60 (2019-2020): Review: BAT OUT OF HELL: THE MUSICAL (seen August 24, 2019)

You've read the reviews. Now read the book. 
THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE, 2012-2013 A Brief Memoir and Reviews

“Sex, Thugs, and Rock and Roll”

I come late to this show, formally called Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell: The Musical, which opened a couple of weeks ago at New York City Center, while I was away. Here for a limited run through September 8, it's already been widely reviewed. Bat Out of Hell, of course, is a buzz-heavy, rock musical founded on the eponymous 1977 album, one of the best-selling of all time (it had two sequels), with Meat Loaf performing the music and lyrics of Jim Steinman.

Its New York version has undergone frequent revisions, personnel changes, and internal production conflicts since the original had its 2017 premiere in Manchester, England, with later stagings in London’s West End, Toronto, and Oberhausen, Germany. A North American tour is said to have been canceled but the show’s journey has had enough twists and turns to suggest it may yet get back on the road.
Tyler Wiltex Jones, William Branner, Andrew Polec. All photos: Little Fang.
Steinman, who’s responsible for the book, has conceived it in the vein of juke-box musicals like Moulin Rouge, where stand-alone songs are squeezed into a narrative, giving them a dramatic context that seeks to move their lyrics out of your head and into concrete situations. Seven of these songs may have been on the same album but their relation to one another, not to mention another dozen (some made famous by singers like Celine Dion), is uncomfortably suggested by being linked in a story very loosely inspired by J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. In fact, Steinman initially considered turning the album into a rock opera called Neverland.
Christine Bennington. 
This approach let’s us hear the indelible sounds of not only "Bat Out of Hell," but “All Revved Up with No Place to Go,” “Dead Ringer for Love,” “For Crying Out Loud,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That,” “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” “Love and Death and the American Guitar,” “Making Love Out of Nothing at All,” “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are,” “Out of the Frying Pan (And into the Fire),” “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Wasted Youth,” “What Part of My Body Hurts the Most?,” and, “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night).” A vivid lyric (regardless of whatever it may mean) in the last, “Would you offer your throat to the wolf with red roses,” becomes the hero’s running query to potential lovers.

Core elements of Barrie’s classic tale have been moved from Victorian London to a dystopian Manhattan, now called Obsidian, where the father of what we remember as the Darling family is transformed into Falco (Bradley Dean), a studly tyrant who looks more like a pop singer in the Tom Jones tradition than the billionaire CEO he depicts. His wife is the glamorous, alcoholic Sloane (Lena Hall), in conflict with her oppressive husband and concerned for the future of their only child.

That would be Raven (Christina Bennington), a rebellious, 17-going on-18 hottie. She resents her father’s restrictions against her leaving their home in a towering skyscraper, suggested by Jon Bousor’s perspective, multifloored setting, with the word Falco emblazoned across its façade. (Not quite Trump and Ivanka, but one can imagine the possibilities.)
Lena Hall, Bradley Dean. 
Peter Pan is envisioned in the person of Strat (the sensational Andrew Polec, who played it in London and Toronto), an 18-year-old in the rock star fashion of a young Roger Daltrey, with wild, blonde hair and eyeliner topping a tall, androgynously slender frame in black leather pants. He’s the leader of an orphaned gang of young scavengers, the Lost (think Barrie’s Lost Boys), living in the post-apocalyptic city’s abandoned tunnels and subways, and decked out in designer Bousor’s punk rock-meets-Mad Max duds, hairdos, and makeup. All are forever young because of something about their DNA having been frozen as a result of chemical warfare.

Among their singing and dancing members are Strat’s gay, child-like friend, Tink (Avionce Hoyle), jealous of Raven for stealing Strat’s affections, and the voluptuous Zahara (Danielle Steers), who also serves as Falco’s maid. Her romance with another gang member, Jagwire (Tyrick Wiltez Jones), his head shaved except for a blonde forelock, forms one of the subplots.

The muddy plot is further muddied by forcing the songs (when Gareth Owens’s sound design lets you catch the lyrics) to somehow fit the narrative, or vice versa. The action mainly concerns the conflict between Falco (supported by his thuggish militia) and the Lost, whom he believes represent a threat to the wellbeing of his daughter. Tink fares less well than Tinker Bell in the violent proceedings, but, after Strat returns from the dead (don't ask), peace comes to Obsidian.
Andrew Polec, Christine Bennington.
Bat Out of Hell clicks only when its famous songs take over from the pulpy book. To get to them, you have to endure the phony, bland, and unconvincing nonmusical material. With the songs so artificially made to serve the story, this way-overlong, two-hour and 40-minute rock opera-striving tale of teenage rebellion, romantic suffering, and marital discord grows more convoluted, clichéd, confusing, and contrived.

At the end, when the company sings—terrifically, but at notable length—the infectious “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” it sounds great but, contextually, you may wonder what it is that everybody keeps declaring they won't do for love. Reading the lyrics won't necessarily clear it up.

The heavily rhythmic score gets its full complement of stage fog, dazzling (often strobe-driven) lighting (by Patrick Woodroole), confetti blasts, and athletic, music video-style choreography (“adapted by” Kena Gusthart), much of it using robotic, martial arts-type movements. Some numbers make colorful use of a fancy motorcycle and a retro convertible.
Andrew Polec, Christine Bennington.
Jay Scheib’s breathless direction keeps things hopping but his insistence on puerile sexual naughtiness, where line after line is accompanied by humping, licking, and otherwise genitally-directed behavior is irritatingly juvenile. Equally distracting is his backing so much of the action with televised projections of exactly what we’re already seeing live, with a camera operator following the actors around à la the manner of Ivo van Hove.

The cast, though, is first rate. Polec moves, acts, and sings with starbright magnetism and should have a bright future. Tony-winner Hall uses her great voice, good looks, and sense of humor to bring her cartoonish character to vivacious life (not least of which when she strips down to sexy skivvies). The macho Dean (who gets to perform in tight, pink scanties--oh, what actors have to do!) invests enormous passion and a huge voice into his every note and lyric. And Steers has an earthy, Cher-like sound and extraordinary charisma that deserve bigger billing. Bennington, from the West End company, matches gorgeous (although too-mature-for-the-role) looks and vocal talent with not quite so gorgeous acting chops.  

If you’re of a certain generation, the score will be familiar and probably beloved. Like some of the ecstatic, arm-waving fans swarming to the show like bats out of hell, you’ll dig the show's sex, thugs, and rock and roll. If so, three out of three ain’t bad.

New York City Center
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through September 8