'Bat Out of Hell — The Musical': Theater Review

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Christine Bennington and Andrew Polec in 'Bat Out of Hell — The Musical'
All revved up with no place to go.
9/8/2019

Jim Steinman's show based on his mega-selling albums with Meat Loaf finally arrives in New York City after its national tour was abruptly cancelled.

If you've ever seriously pondered the question, "On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?" then do I have the show for you. Of course, it's Bat Out of Hell — The Musical, based on the mega-selling 1977 Meat Loaf album and its two sequels, featuring music and lyrics by Jim Steinman. The show has now arrived in New York for a limited engagement after a tumultuous history that includes hit runs in London and Toronto and an intended national tour that was abruptly canceled just a few days before it was to begin last fall.

It would be a pleasure to report that the show was worth the wait, but this overblown, laborious exercise, which makes Wagnerian operas look subtle by comparison, proves far less interesting than its backstory.

Speaking of story, brace yourselves, because I'm going to try and relate it. The show is set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future (yes, that again), in an urban wasteland dubbed Obsidian. (Don't believe me? Check out the copy of the broadsheet newspaper The Obsidian Times, dated August 2030, that serves as the show's program. Its motto is "Celebrating a Decade of Bat Out of Hell," which is both wildly optimistic and not quite as catchy as "All the News That's Fit to Print.")

Falco (Bradley Dean), the tyrannical leader of Obsidian, lives in a palatial compound (Jon Bausor's elaborate multi-level set is one of the show's strongest elements) with his wife Sloane (Lena Hall) and virginal teenage daughter Raven (Christina Bennington). Prowling the streets of the burnt-out neighborhood are the members of The Lost, who due to some genetic mishap are permanently stuck at age 18. Looking out the window of her lavishly appointed bedroom, Raven falls in love with Strat (Andrew Polec), the sexy, wild-haired leader of the group, who seems to have gotten his fashion cues from Billy Idol. Much melodrama ensues, including the machinations of Tink (Avionce Hoyles), a member of The Lost who also has developed an obsession with Strat.

If the name Tink rings a bell, it's because Steinman originally wanted to create a musical based on Peter Pan. That might have been preferable to this misbegotten mess incorporating elements from J.M. Barrie's classic and numerous other influences. Despite the book making almost zero sense, the show is stretched to a seemingly interminable two hours and 40 minutes, its bloated length apparently designed to accommodate nearly 20 Steinman songs, including the previously unreleased "Not Allowed to Love" and "What Part of My Body Hurts the Most." (In this reviewer's case, the brain.)

Many of the numbers will no doubt strike a nostalgic chord with audiences of the proper demographic. If you were sentient in the '70s and a radio was anywhere nearby, there was no way to avoid songs like "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth," "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" and "All Revved Up With No Place to Go." While the 1993 and 2006 albums sequels were less hit-laden, they did produce such charting songs as "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" and "It's All Coming Back to Me Now."

These are all delivered in the show, as well as numerous other Steinman compositions with which only Meat Loaf aficionados will be familiar. And no matter who is performing them, they're sung at full Meat Loaf-style volume and in deafeningly loud arrangements meant to be heard by aging baby boomers at the beginning stages of hearing loss. It's the musical equivalent of sending text messages in all caps.

Jay Scheib, a veteran opera director and MIT professor breathlessly described in his program bio as being "internationally known for genre-defying works of daring physicality and the integration of new (and used) technologies in live performance" (do we get college credits for reading this?), lives up to his billing by providing a multimedia staging that makes extensive use of video projections. Apparently still under the notion that incorporating video into theater is a cutting-edge idea, he frequently features close-ups of the performers shot by black-clad videographers resembling ninja stalkers.

To replicate a rock concert feel, the production heavily employs confetti bombs and smoke machines, as well as lights shining directly into the audience, so bright that they threaten to burn your retinas. (One nifty scenic effect, involving an actual pool in the stage, has been dropped, since City Center was apparently unable to accommodate it.)

Bat Out of Hell might have worked as a humorous, campy spectacle, the sort of show that's so bad it's good. Instead, it's just bad enough to be really, really bad, dragged down by turgid, expository dialogue and a ponderous tone that will have you twitching in your seat like an animal caught in a trap.

Only certain numbers, such as the exuberantly frenzied, silly staging of "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" (a virtual mini-musical all by itself), suggest the fun that the whole show could have delivered. And for every clever gag, including a meta-joke involving several orchestra musicians disgustedly walking offstage after a mock scenery mishap, there are a dozen strained attempts at humor, such as Falco repeatedly getting Tink's name wrong.

Polec and Bennington, who have been with the show since its 2017 Manchester premiere, certainly have the vocal prowess and physical attributes to get their attitudinal characters across. But in terms of acting chops, they're overshadowed by Broadway veterans Dean (Dear Evan Hansen, A Little Night Music) and Hall (a Tony Award winner for Hedwig and the Angry Inch), who garner most of the show's laughs as the comically warring Falco and Sloane. The best that can be said about Xena Gusthart's stripper pole-style choreography is that it fulfills its mission of recalling the days when MTV actually played music videos.

Venue: New York City Center, New York
Cast: Andrew Polec, Christina Bennington, Bradley Dean, Lena Hall, Avionce Hoyles, Tyrick Wiltz Jones, Paulina Jurzec, Danielle Steers, Will Branner, Lincoln Clauss, Kayla Cyphers, Jessica Jaunich, Adam Kemmerer, Nick Martinez, Harper Miles, Erin Mosher, Aramie Payton, Andrew Quintero, Tiernan Tunnicliffe, Kaleb Wells
Book, music and lyrics: Jim Steinman
Director: Jay Scheib
Musical supervisor and additional arrangements: Michael Reed
Choreography adaptor: Xena Gusthart
Set and costume designer: Jon Bausor
Original costume designer: Meentje Nielsen
Lighting designer: Patrick Woodroofe
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Video designer: Finn Ross
Presented by David Sonenberg, Michael Cohl, Tony Smith, Bob Broderick, Lorne Gertner