The trouble starts early at Bat Boy: The Musical, currently running at the Bathurst Street Theatre. After the first scene, where a naked Bat Boy is flushed out of his cave, it becomes obvious that the rest of the evening will be spent looking at an extraordinarily ugly brown set that resembles a bat cave in the Addams Family home.
Combined with the equally dank colour palette used by Joanne Dente in her costumes and presumably meant as a heavy handed metaphor for the matching darkness in Bat Boy’s psyche or the viciousness of his small town tormentors, designer Glenn Davidson has given the show an unaccountably dreary visual look that’s impossible to overcome.
Bat Boy is part of the new – though, already old – style of musical theatre that relies on irony and detachment from its audience and milks the traditional conventions while mocking them. The problem for this new/old style is that it depends on people still knowing and caring enough about the old conventions to admire the flouting of them. What has happened instead is that the flouting has itself become a tired convention.
Using a character that has appeared regularly in issues of a weekly supermarket newspaper, the show contrives to make fun of its southern small town protagonists. The bitter culture wars that have divided the US into Blue States and Red States are firmly in evidence here, with fun being made of the rural working classes, small town intolerance and evangelical Christianity. This is the off-Broadway version of Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies.
It is easy to see why this show was popular with musical theatre fans in New York and Los Angeles, where city dwellers feel they have lost all the recent political and cultural battles to the forces of the ignorant suburban right. Transplanted to Toronto, however, what gets revealed instead is the nastiness of the class warfare masquerading as irony and the mean-spirited, big-city intolerance of it all.
The unconvincingly generic southern accent that the actors use serves only to heighten the unsettling unpleasantness of the portrayal. Unfortunately, the earnest work of most of those on stage only illustrates the fact that they and director Michael McGinn have found very little of the ironic humour that the script does contain. For this to have worked, there had to be some basic knowledge and a little underlying affection for its protagonists – there is none here.
Two actors have risen to the challenge and make heroic efforts to carry the whole show on their shoulders. Luckily they are the two leads, so there are some stretches of the evening that do come to life. Laura Caswell is outstanding as Bat Boy’s mother, straight out of Desperate Housewives. Jay T Schramek also does sterling work in his attempt to breathe life into the show – from gymnastic feats to some strong singing to some funny moments when playing a newly sophisticated Bat Boy.