When Bat Boy opened off Broadway in 2001 the critics raved. The buzz buzzed, and the crowds poured in to see what all the fuss was about. The musical, ripped directly from the gripping headlines of the Weekly World News had "cult classic" written all over it. But then a little thing called 9-11 happened, and like so many shows, Bat Bo
y closed down for a while. It reopened on Halloween 2001, but during the preceding month, America's mood had turned terribly, terribly grim, and otherwise respectable newspapers ran well-placed columns with rhetorical headlines asking things like, "Is humor (comedy, satire, general funny business) dead?" Of course, comedy wasn't dead. It was, like virtually everything else, just in a terrible state of crisis. But still, it seemed like there just wasn't a place for a campy little horror show about the evils of creating scapegoats. Not off Broadway, anyhow. So Bat Boy closed again, finally, a month later.
That was then, this is now. Time has passed, and in the two confusing years since 9-11, scapegoats have become all the rage (paging Martha Stewart!). And in that time, Bat Boy has found its market and become something of a regional-theater sensation. The tabloid-tale of a pointy-eared child with fangs, a generally cultured demeanor, and an insatiable blood-thirst, found deep within a cave in the wilds of rural Virginia, has struck a chord with actors and audiences alike. In fact, Playhouse on the Square's impending production is the sole reason why actor Michael Ingersoll came to Memphis.
"The first time I heard the soundtrack, I started training for the part," he says. "As an actor, you know there will always be certain roles you really want to play, but you just aren't right for them. And you'll never be right. Well I said, 'This is a role I'm absolutely right for.'"
With no promise that he would ever play the part, Ingersoll hit the gym. After all, Bat Boy spends most of his time on stage naked, or nearly so.
"I'd been in school. There was a lot of beer and pizza and I'd put on 20 or 30 pounds. And I'm 5'8", so I can't carry that," he says. He also began formal voice training right away. After being cast by Playhouse and moving to Memphis, Ingersoll started supplementing his vocal training by working with members of a local band called The Bugs. He wanted to see if he could take all that fancy training and make it rock like Hell's Bells. Ingersoll finds a kind of youthful righteousness in Bat Boy's aggressive, animal side.
"And what'd the first thing you do when you're 14 and pissed off?" he asks. "You buy a Metallica record and a T-shirt. Am I right?"
Director Scott Ferguson was drawn as much to Bat Boy's message as to its dark, silly comedy. But Ferguson, the Chicago-based artist who invented Schoolhouse Rock Live!, created live stage versions of Xena Warrior Princess, and has directed such camp classics as Forbidden Planet, The Rocky Horror Show, The Mystery of Irma Vep, and (yes) Evita, was likely hired because of his tremendous gifts for kitsch and camp.
"It's a very sweet love story," Ferguson says of Bat Boy. "There are some beautiful ballads that will just bring tears to your eyes. And then there are some moments that are just scary as shit. You know [Ingersoll is] sucking blood. He's got these fangs that look amazing. And there's just blood dripping down out of his mouth, and on his chest, and everywhere. It's creepy."
But, gory details aside, Ferguson keeps coming back to the moral of the show.
"In the epilogue, which is sort of the finale of the show, after we've gone through all this cornball stuff, the lyrics [turn to] 'What have we learned?' They sing, 'To scapegoat folks is wrong.' And then the sing, 'and don't kill Mrs. Taylor's kids' because Ms. Taylor's kids all get killed and she goes crazy. They are moralizing a bit in a silly way. It makes it go down easier. I think that's part of what make it so great."
Another part of what makes it so great is the music.
"It's all over the place," Ingersoll says. "It mildly satirizes all these different kinds of musical theater. It samples all these styles. There's rock. There's country. There's rap." And, of course for all the romantics, there's a half-naked Bat Boy with terrible fangs singing songs and sucking up blood. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)
Bat Boy is at Playhouse on the Square through July 27.