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This summer's fare for the annual Teens on Stage project at Raleigh Little Theatre is a work that is as difficult as it is different. Bat Boy: The Musical is a highly unlikely story about a youth found in a cave who is part human and part bat. That's right, bat, as in flying mammal. Conceived and written by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, the play takes the old concept of the boy who cannot fit in and takes it to the next level. This freak of nature is held as a danger by the populace, and though he finds a caring family to look after him, he nonetheless must fight to be allowed, in this case, to even live.
Set in a minute little hamlet, Hope Falls, in mountainous West Virginia – note the inference in this town's name – Bat Boy sets neighbor against neighbor and even husband against wife. Found in a cave by a trio of spelunking siblings, the boy we come to know as Edgar (Parker Perry) is swiftly tormented, and he lashes out, biting young Ruthie Taylor (Sophia Alba) on the neck. Her two brothers, Rick (Connor Gerney) and Ronnie (David Snee), immediately beat the lad senseless. They then drag him to the local sheriff (Dylan Renken) to be punished for his crime. It is only at this point that we meet a few of the members of the townsfolk of Hope Falls; the company presents a very unusual opening number, "Hold Me, Bat Boy," the lyrics of which are anathema to the town's immediate reaction of revulsion. These lyrics are composed, along with the score, by Laurence O'Keefe, and ably produced by a trio of musicians led by musical director Shane W. Dittmar. Dittmar plays keyboards and is accompanied by Isaiah Moore on percussion and David West on guitar.
The sheriff has not a clue what to do with this freak of nature ("Christian Charity,"/Sheriff) and ultimately decides to take him to the local veterinarian, Dr. Thomas Parker (Oscar Sindemark). In his absence, his wife, Meredith (Aubrey Clyburn), takes charge of the boy and puts him in one of her husband's large animal cages. Her teenage daughter, Shelley (Eden Bartholomew), is fascinated by him and immediately wants to keep him for a pet. The townsfolk, riled up by the Taylor brothers and their vindictive mother (Brynna Rosenberg), want him put down as a menace ("Another Dead Cow"/company). But Meredith has already grown fond of the boy, and is teaching him to read and write ("Show You a Thing or Two"). Edgar learns the King's English using BBC training tapes; he speaks with an Etonian accent. His miraculous transformation from a freak to a civilized individual is only punctuated by the continued fear of the neighbors ("Mrs. Taylor's Lullaby"/mother and boys). The situation comes to a head when the traveling Revival Meeting comes to town. The Sheriff comes to tell Dr. Parker not to bring Edgar to the meeting, as he would not be able to guarantee the boy's safety. But Edgar has his heart set on going; the Revival is an affair the entire town turns out for, and he wants to participate. Dr. Parker tries to put his foot down ("Comfort and Joy"/the Parkers and Edgar), but he is outvoted by Meredith and Shelley. The ensuing family squabble ends Act I.
This completely outre musical is the perfect foil for this troupe of teen actors and singers. The cast is large (23) and varied; one song uniquely fitted to this theme is "Children, Children," sung by the woodsprite Pan (Ricky Hall) while woodland creatures dance around Edgar and Shelley. It is an almost psychedelic dreamscape.
All of these actors are taught to sing and dance; the principals, obviously, but the townsfolk, too. Meredith and Shelley have a complementary duet ("Three Bedroom House") while the entire town gets up in arms in the quite literal "All Hell Breaks Loose" in Act II. This cast is also schooled in local accents; they all sport a West Virginian twang. The entire town (the total populace of Hope Falls is 500) sings and dances to choreography provided by Sue Hill. The cast was truly up for this production, and we bought into the premise quickly and easily. The only fly in the ointment was Sindemark's Dr. Parker had a tendency to sing flat. But, as he is the villain of this work, it simply seemed to add to his character. Perry made the most of his moment in the spotlight with the touching solo "Let Me Walk Among You." Bat Boy is Perry's fifth and final Teens On Stage production; he has graduated and goes off to college this fall. We would be remiss if we did not mention a superb cameo by Noah Anderson as the Rev. Billy Hightower, who delivered a rockin' gospel rendition in the Act II opener, "A Joyful Noise."
It is to be noted here that this musical is not for the wee ones; there are adult themes and concepts a touch beyond their capabilities. But students sixth grade and up will be into it. Bat Boy is a tragedy; when one stops and considers the situation, the work could be nothing else. As Meredith and Thomas begin to reveal all in Act II's climactic "Revelations," the entire company takes part in a conclusion to the show that has an entirely Hamlet-like air. But while the dénouement of Bat Boy is grisly, the overall production is oddly uplifting; we find ourselves rooting for this strange youth and his desire to be like everyone else. In a closing number that rivals the ending of West Side Story, the townsfolk are a good bit sadder but nonetheless wiser ("Hold Me, Bat Boy"/company).
Director Linda O'Day Young has presented Bat Boy to us as a conundrum: What is to be done when a situation demands understanding of a concept we cannot understand? How do we explain the unexplainable? And can we learn to have the heart to let it be? Oftentimes we discover we cannot; such is the case here. This production sported polish and professionalism in the entire cast, and they conveyed the ultimate conclusion with panache. Bat Boy is unlike anything else you will see this season, and is another feather in the cap of Raleigh Little Theatre and Teens on Stage.
Bat Boy continues through Sunday, July 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.