'Bat Out of Hell: The Musical': Theater Review
Based on the bestselling Meat Loaf albums, Jim Steinman's award-winning rock opera settles into its new West End home.
A jukebox musical rooted in Meat Loaf's freakishly successful 1977 album, Bat Out of Hell, feels like a sure-fire crowd-pleaser on paper. Initially conceived by composer Jim Steinman as a Wagnerian rock opera, the album sold 43 million copies and spawned a multiplatinum sequel in 1993. Crammed with thunderous Springsteen-on-steroids hymns to the libidinous fever dreams of youth, it remains a perennially popular classic of its genre, a maximalist milestone in baroque-and-roll excess with tumescent sales figures to match. And yet it has taken four decades to finally reach the stage. Was it worth the wait?
Most critics clearly think so. When it premiered last year in Manchester, London and Toronto, Jay Scheib's excess-all-areas production earned very positive reviews and industry awards. After minor tweaks and cuts, it has taken up long-term London residence at the Dominion, former home to the Queen musical We Will Rock You, which defied negative notices by running for 12 years and spawning numerous international versions. Bat Out of Hell shares many flaws with the Queen show, including an incoherent plot and cardboard characters. But it has been welcomed much more warmly, and will likely follow a similar global rollout. A U.S. touring production is already gearing up for next year.
The original Bat Out of Hell album partly grew out of a rock musical based on Peter Pan, which Steinman shelved for various reasons, including objections from J.M. Barrie's estate. Traces of that project survive in this new stage reboot, with a side order of West Side Story and Mad Max. The setting is a Gotham-esque dystopian city called Obsidian, ruled over by a Trump-ian despotic tycoon named Falco (Rob Fowler). A more astute writer-director team might have milked these Trump parallels for topical effect, but Bat Out of Hell has all the sharp-witted political smarts of a Motley Crue album. In Steinman's cheesy fantasy Neverland, youth culture remains permanently stalled in a Groundhog Day time loop of 1980s glam metal: all hormones and hair spray, phallic guitars and fishnet stockings.
Falco's malevolent plans to demolish the city's underground tunnels bring him into violent conflict with The Lost, a tribe of youthful rebels frozen at the age of 18 by some skimpily explained chemical warfare atrocity. Their leader is the Pan-like Strat (Andrew Polec), a skinny blond bad-boy poet with vaguely Joker-ish overtones. But Falco's 18-year-old daughter, Raven (Christina Bennington), has fallen hard for Strat, and she runs away to join the rebels with clandestine help from her long-suffering mother, Sloane (Sharon Sexton,) and nurse Zahara (Danielle Steers), who happens to be a double agent for The Lost.
Anyone coming to Bat Out of Hell for a coherent, gripping, emotionally absorbing drama will leave disappointed. The battle between Falco and The Lost has no logic, the love story between Strat and Raven zero passion. One bizarre twist in the overstuffed narrative concerns a younger gay member of The Lost, Tink (Alex Thomas-Smith), who becomes murderously jealous of Strat's feelings for Raven. Though clearly a nod to Barrie's Tinker Bell, this coyly homoerotic subplot remains frustratingly opaque. Hints that The Lost may have vampiric tendencies also go nowhere. Since nothing real ever feels at stake, the story's triumphs and tragedies have scant dramatic weight. Humor is also strikingly absent, as Steinman largely falls back on charmless sexual innuendo without the knowing wit to make it work in a modern context.
As sheer sense-battering escapist spectacle, Bat Out of Hell is admittedly impressive. Drawing heavily on the first two Bat albums, plus related single releases and a couple of newly written songs, Steinman and Scheib rev up sprawlingly verbose anthems including "Dead Ringer for Love," "Two out of Three Ain't Bad" and "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" into rousing duets, muscular multisinger marathons and orgiastic full-cast numbers. Fowler and Steers deserve special credit here, their octave-vaulting power and precision standing out in a sea of competent but characterless voices.
Songs aside, John Bausor's cinematic set is the chief star attraction here. A raked skyscraper erupts upward at the rear of the stage, its geometric grid design loosely mimicking the strings and frets of a gigantic guitar. Raven's bedroom sits high in the tower, her movements visible through a gauzy wall but also relayed to the audience on video link via a black-clad camera crew. Stage left sits the cave-like entrance to a subterranean tunnel complex, with a billboard-sized screen perched on top that cleverly opens up into a further room space. No square inch of this multilevel stage canvas is wasted.
Pyrotechnics and special effects also figure heavily, from flame cannons and glitter bombs to robotic bats. Nestled among the postapocalyptic debris front of stage is a half-hidden plunge pool that provides a late dramatic surprise. A dinner table reveals itself as a gleaming convertible before reversing into the orchestra pit. Referencing the original 1977 album sleeve, vintage chopper motorcycles feature prominently, with one artfully exploding into its component parts before forming a heart shape midair. This is technically dazzling, Vegas-level visual Viagra. What a shame it serves purely to pump up such a creaky, bloodless and dramatically flaccid production.
Venue: Dominion Theatre, London
Book, music & lyrics: Jim Steinman
Cast: Andrew Polec, Christina Bennington, Rob Fowler, Sharon Sexton, Danielle Steers, Alex Thomas-Smith, Wayne Robinson, Giovanni Spano, Patrick Sullivan
Director: Jay Scheib
Set designer: Jon Bausor
Costume designers: Jon Bausor, Meentje Nielsen
Lighting designer: Patrick Woodroffe
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Video designer: Finn Ross
Fight director: Stuart Boother
Choreographer: Emma Portner
Musical director: Robert Emery
Musical supervisor, additional arrangements: Michael Reed
Additional book material: Stuart Beattie
Presented by David Sonenberg, Michael Cohl, Randy Lennox, Tony Smith