“Bat Child Found in West Virginia Cave!” screamed a headline in the Weekly World News on June 23, 1992. It was fiction, of course, as were most stories in the now-defunct supermarket tabloid, telling the tale of a boy who was half human, half bat. But it was popular fiction, selling more papers than almost any other issue and making Bat Boy a character the Weekly World News kept coming back to.
So the tabloid audience was thrilled, but then something surprising happened. Writers Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming read the story and were inspired to create a stage version that, even more surprising, was set to music by Laurence O’Keefe.
Now that show — described by director Scott Hafso as “ridiculous and smart,” is coming to Meany Studio Theatre beginning this weekend. Get ready for Bat Boy: The Musical. It ain’t exactly South Pacific, but it has played off Broadway and in London’s West End, and it’s garnered multiple awards.
“The show is really smart, and that’s what I think the audience will be surprised by,” Hafso said. “They’ll come for the sensational novelty of it and then be engrossed by the music, by the characters, by the complexity of it all. Our production’s going to be lively and energetic. It’s really fast and hopefully very engaging.”
Like the Weekly World News story, Bat Boy: The Musical revolves around a half-human, half-bat creature found in a cave in West Virginia. Discovered by three spelunking kids, Bat Boy is brought to the local veterinarian’s home, where he is lovingly cared for by the doctor, his wife and daughter. But trouble soon ensues as the townspeople think Bat Boy is to blame for a series of problems.
“There’s a lot of truth in the show, even though it has that ridiculous premise,” Hafso said. “The question of who is the monster ricochets through it, and depending on where we are in the story, the answer might be different.”
Bat Boy is a joint production of the School of Drama and the Undergraduate Theatre Society (UTS) — the first such collaboration — and it came about because of the budget cuts. The drama school usually reserves one of its mainstage productions each season for undergraduates only, but because of reduced funding, Executive Director Sarah Nash Gates offered undergrads a professional director for one of their productions instead. The society, an all-volunteer student group that usually does its productions in the school’s small cabaret space, earns money on its shows and also does other fund raising. They quickly said yes to Gates’ offer, and Hafso, a drama school lecturer, agreed to direct.
The undergraduates wanted to do a musical, so Hafso looked for a show that was high-energy, with “a bit of edge and bite,” and a show that was large enough to provide multiple roles. Although Bat Boy is sometimes done with as few as 10 actors, the UW production has 24. “Everyone has multiple things to do and at least one primary moment that’s theirs,” Hafso said.
But even considering the joint funding, Bat Boy is still being produced on something of a shoestring. Hafso said he had grand visions of what he’d like to do technologically, but scaled it way down. Now the production has a kind of B movie feel, he said, with references to classics such as Frankenstein, Rose Marie, North by Northwest and The Birds.
The audience will get the feel of the show immediately because everything about it will be a little “off.” Sets are raked at odd angles, costumes are a mixture of present day and vintage, lighting on a hospital set is “dirty.” The cast, however, will be playing it absolutely straight.
“We’re not commenting on the show. We’re not sending it up,” Hafso said. “Audiences are smart. You don’t need to wink at them and say, in effect, ‘This is funny.’ We’ll present the story just as it is, with all its odd quirks.”
Erin Hancock, a senior drama major who is playing the mayor, says this kind of honesty is one of the main things she’s learned being in the production. “If you’re treating the character honestly, it will play to an audience more realistically,” she said. “You don’t have to play into the jokes for them to understand it.”
Hancock is the executive director of UTS, and is also serving as assistant director for Bat Boy. In fact, each of the graduate student designers for the show has an undergraduate assistant, thus providing training opportunities for the undergraduates.
“I’ve learned how to function with a production team, to collaborate,” Hancock said. “It’s hard to share your vision, but Scott has been great about having a vision and working with people to achieve it and compromising at the same time. That’s a huge tool I can use later on.”
What will the Bat Boy look like? That’s a secret Hafso is keeping even through the first few scenes, when the creature will be seen only in fleeting glimpses. But one thing we know is that he will be bald. Actor Brad Walker had his head shaved in front of Hutchinson Hall as a fundraiser for the show, with passers-by paying whatever they chose in exchange for wielding the clippers.
For the rest, you’ll just have to go to the show and see. Hafso promises a Pieta moment, some Civil War re-enactment moments, a bit of Michelangelo and an homage to a scene in Hamlet, though he won’t say which one. And oh yes, there will be (fake) blood — lots of it.
Bat Boy: The Musical runs April 28 to May 9, with previews on April 25 and April 27. Tickets are $10 for previews, $15 for Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and $17 for Friday and Saturday. Student tickets are $10, UW employees, alumni association members and seniors pay $13. Tickets are available at the UW Arts Ticket Office, 4001 University Way NE or online at www.drama.washington.edu.