Even if you leave New York City Center after this piece of theatrical madness like a bat out of hell gulping at the night air, you may do so with a smile on your face—a baffled, stunned one, but still a smile.
If you are a Meat Loaf fan, then perhaps you will actively enjoy Bat Out of Hell: The Musical (to Sept. 8), because in its flailing, foam-at-the-mouth, 2-hour 40-minute ride it finds a way to crowbar an array of songs from Meat Loaf’s three Bat Out of Hell albums, plus other songs by Jim Steinman, into its insane carcass. This review contains spoilers, but I wouldn't imagine that would put off any Meat Loaf fan.
Steinman, Meat Loaf’s longtime collaborator and occasional legal adversary, is responsible for the book (total nonsense), music (loud, great if you like Meat Loaf), and lyrics (mad), and it has all the furious energy of a true passion project, inspired by the story of Peter Pan and a desire to rock out as shamelessly as possible. The Ryan Cantwell-led band attack the score with all the volume and extravagant pranging and percussion it demands.
But the musical itself, directed by Jay Scheib, is a bizarre mess—albeit one admittedly loved by some other critics. It’s fine to go big. It’s great to be outrageous. But when the orchestra is too loud for the singers, when some scenes range out of focus and control, the feeling grows that the material and size of the project has gotten the better of its creators.
We are in a place called Obsidian, which looks like a comic-book New York City of sheer skyscrapers, dive bars, and gigantic storm drains. The newspaper-styled program we are given instead of a Playbill is called The Obsidian Times, dated August 2030. It looks and feels like a mash-up of Mad Max and any 1980s pop video, with the cast and dancers in new romantic drag, with a dash of goth.
They are The Lost, who for reasons not hugely dwelt on, are forever chemically frozen at age 18. Their nominal leader/dude-yogi is Strat (big-voiced, lithe Andrew Polec), and they are forever at war with the cops, who they have half-hearted fights with because that’s what rebellious youth do in fictional dystopian landscapes. If you’ve seen Adam Ant’s “Prince Charming” video, the dance sequences will seem very familiar.
The Trumpian baddie is called Falco (Bradley Dean), who is married to the bored, heavily-drinking Sloane (Lena Hall). He wants to run the city and hates the pesky kids. She’s trapped and lazy and a lush; she reminded a colleague of Peg from Married With Children, and she does resemble Peg visually but with all the vim and personality washed out of her.
This utterly stock screwed-up family set-up is completed by their very odd daughter Raven (Christina Bennington). She, naturally, falls in love with the rebellious Strat, and begins—when with him—jerking her body this way and that, like an angry question mark. When she’s not with him she does a lot of inexplicable writhing on her bed and floor. A person with a camera films this, as it takes place above the stage, and the video is played on a screen.
If I tell you that Strat and Raven have zero chemistry, that doesn’t allow for the minus figures that would be added more accurately to that description. They are two people singing their parts in the duets they share, never two people singing a duet. They play a couple allegedly fatefully drawn one to another, yet whose body language screams two people irritated with one another while waiting for a bus in the rain.
During one song she runs to the back of the stage and ecstatically climbs over rocks, then comes back and looks furiously at him. Maybe the show has an internal irony and humor that never quite reaches the audience. The night this critic saw it, many audience members were laughing at it, rather than with it, particularly at a moment when Sloane returns to the stage with a suitcase and sad expression. I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to be funny.
Falco himself is a say-what, confusing mix of pantomime villain and dopey dad, a seriously murderous sociopath whose redemption and salvation apparently comes from rock music. (Truly—this is made apparent in one of the musical's bizarre closing scenes.)
Falco doesn’t want Strat to be romancing his daughter, this also being Romeo and Juliet as well as Peter Pan. Dean crushes every single one of his songs, stripping off to tight purple undies, and bellows songs that should be bellowed. His is the only character that really matches the stage. He and Hall sing and strip to “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” taking that song’s keenly recalled teen-horniness to its extreme, ending with a genuinely funny moment where damage is done to the band, three of whose players emerge dazed to wander off stage.
It’s odd to hear other well-known songs, sung with such mucky, lascivious wonder by Meat Loaf, here all cleaned up and made Broadway, including—for all the lights and stage fuss around them—“Bat Out of Hell,” “Dead Ringer for Love,” and “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” the latter of which becomes a awkwardly staged quartet featuring the show’s two main couples.
Dean supplies, in the best way, the fully realized karaoke id of the show, even if his character is as ill-served by the story as Hall’s Sloane. At one point, now freed from her awful husband, Sloane kisses a woman, wipes her lips as if finding she actually likes the taste of Aloe Vera liquid soap after all, and then wanders off-stage. It is quite literally a brush with lesbianism, as it is never referenced again.
She, placated, numb, inexplicably returns to her awful, killer hubby. The show never makes a case why it should be, just as it never posits a convincing thesis that Strat and Raven are a really good, hot, romantic, have-to-be idea. The women are simply required to give in.
The show’s homophobia, or (at the very least) utter gay cluelessness, is most clunkily mined in the relationship between Strat and Tink (Avionce Hoyles, I guess playing a version of Tinkerbell). The latter is in love with Strat, and so—the logic of the show goes—must grow psychotically jealous of Raven. The betrayal he executes around this ultimately leads to his murder, with nothing vocalized or explained around his sexuality. Strat is visibly devastated for about 7 seconds.
Hoyles gets to sing a song of unrequited love, but the play should be doing more than glancingly recognizing same-sex desire, not naming it, making the queer mad and bad, then killing him. How does Tink experience the closet and heartbreak? By stomping around the stage with a bicycle.
But there I go again, trying to bring sense to bear upon something that really makes very little sense; this is a story desperately doing all it can to contort its way to the next song. Some songs resist this; best of all the perverse “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are,” which stays its own strange island.
Wait for the final join-the-dots-oh-fuck-the-dots lunging to the big finale of “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).”
By now, the central couple look not on the verge of something joyous and life-changing, but just squirmingly uncomfortable. Raven scowls, pouts, and prances about, casting her eyes all over the stage for what? Some kind of clarity? Good luck with that. And then there is Strat endlessly sing-repeating “I would do anything for love/but I won’t do that,” at her which—when you really need your central couple to get together—keeps casting doubt on the whole romantic proposition.
All musical, he has been asking of Raven the opening line of “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)”: “On a hot summer night/Would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?”
For no reason and again making no sense (Strat promising not to become a man-slut seems to be the clincher), Raven smiles, and finally yelps “yes” to this. The fact that Strat’s chastity and non-slutty behavior had been an unspoken feature of Bat Out of Hell up until now makes this final joke/plot-point fall as flat as so many of the others.
And yet—pounded by the music, eyes aching from the lights, ticker tape littering the floor—you, like Raven, may give in too. Certainly, there was a partial standing ovation, and the Meat Loaf fans two rows in front of me seemed happy. Bat Out of Hell: The Musical may not win your love, but—just as it does with its female characters—it insists on your submission.