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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
October 2004
“Bat Boy: The Musical”

In the musical theatre, finding something original is tough. Recently, “Mamma Mia” proved the catalogue of a pop group can be built it into a remarkably entertaining musical comedy. It’s inspired other musicals, using the songbooks of Rod Stewart, Queen and Elvis.

And then there is “Bat Boy: The Musical,” Laurence O’Keefe, Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming’s dramatization of a tabloid story brought to life. The Minneapolis Musical Theatre is presenting a smashing production at Hennepin Stages.

The wonders of this production are so plentiful, I don’t know where to begin praising it. The ensemble is filled with talented people, each of whom gets their moment to shine, with especial praise to Jeff Huset as Sheriff Reynolds, Becca Ollmann as Shelley, Tom Karki as Rick and Daisy, Greta Grosch as Ron and Maggie and Aaron Gabriel as Mrs. Taylor, Reverend Hightower and Roy. With her musical comedy face and superb voice, Christine Nelson fulfills the promise she displayed this summer as Maizie in “Seussical.” Three outstanding performances dominate “Bat Boy: The Musical.”

As Dr. Thomas Parker, the villain of the piece, Neil Seeley is both dashing and sublimely sinister; Karen Weber not only sings beautifully, but delivers a heart-wrenching performance as Meredith Parker, and as Edgar, the bat boy of the title, Shaun Nathan Baer is perfect. With his superb voice and handsome good looks, he blends the depths of the character’s emotions with the passion and growth he experiences. It’s a sensational leading performance!

Director Steven J. Meerdink, whose past work has often left audiences baffled and wanting something else, has surpassed himself. This time he’s done his homework, so there’s not a false moment, and he’s proven he can, indeed, stage a decent production. Furthermore, he’s assembled the best ensemble of talent that the Minneapolis Musical Theatre has ever presented. He even managed to include one of MMT’s trademarks, a tacky prop, (although it’s missing the silver duct tape.)

Only a couple of glitches marred the opening night, specifically with the lighting. In Dr. Parker’s opening number, “Dance with Me, Darling,” he stepped into a performance space that wasn’t lit at all, leaving one to wonder who was working the follow spot? At first, I thought Meerdink’s choreography was rather lame, but, upon reflection, I realize it fits the redneck characters who dominate the story.

If there are problems with the show, they’re all in the writing. While the authors maintain the macabre aspects of this weird libretto, it could use the more gothic tones of a vampire story. After all, Bat Boy is part animal, and he feeds on the blood of dead animals. At times, the show deliberately spoofs classic musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “L’il Abner.” Midway through Act Two, the number “Children, Children,” is a satirical variation of “Godspell” and “The Lion King.” While it’s rather funny, it adds nothing to the show, and upsets its dramatic climax.

These are minor quibbles, though. After past treats like “Lucky Stiff,” “Weird Romance,” and “When Pigs Fly,” and such poor choices as “Mail,” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Bat Boy: The Musical” is, undoubtedly, the best show ever presented by Minneapolis Musical Theatre. It’s marvelous for a cool October evening of theatre.

“Farm Boys”

Audiences usually see new plays in fully-realized productions, so the experience of seeing something in its beginning stages is a rare treat. The Great American History Theatre recently hosted eight such opportunities with their “Raw Stages” New Works Festival.

Taken from Will Fellow’s, “Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest,” the text for Amy Fox and Dean Gray’s dramatization, “Farm Boys” centers on John, who returns to Colby, Wisconsin from New York with his lover, Kim, a dancer-choreographer. Lyle, a gay veterinarian who has recently died of a heart attack, has left his farm to John. Told partly through flashbacks, the plot unravels slowly, and builds on itself. Fox and Gray’s script is clever, because, just when you’re questioning, things are revealed and clarified.

The story focuses on the community’s reaction to these men. It’s implied that the “sins” you commit in a small Wisconsin town last a long time and bring out the worst in a person. While John is understandably nervous about relocating to his hometown, (“People do talk.”), Kim sees an opportunity for establishing an artist colony (“We’ll give them something to talk about.”)

As a whispering campaign begins, we learn that, while in high school, John moved in with Lyle to escape an abusive father. Lyle’s ex-wife, Lois, now cooks for John and Kim. Controversy arises when Keith, a closeted teenager afraid of his own sexuality, is at first excited, then turns against John and Kim, lying his pastor just as he’s about to leave for Northwestern Bible College in St. Paul.

For the History Theatre reading, fine performances were delivered by Sean Michael Dooley, Phil Callen, Muriel Bonertz and Harlan Chambers. Perhaps it’s my background — I grew up in a small Wisconsin city — but I found the characters to be realistic, and that’s refreshing in the theatre.

I enjoyed the two plays I saw in “Raw Stages” and hope to attend similar staged readings in future.

“Beyond the Rainbow”

For many middle-aged (yes, we are) gay men, the recording of “Judy at Carnegie Hall” was an important. part of our childhood. Using the Carnegie Hall concert as his anchor, William Randall Beard’s “Beyond The Rainbow” shows promise, but needs further development before it’s premiere next Spring.

Garland’s life have been dramatized before. “Rainbow” and “Me and My Shadows: Life with Judy Garland” were made for television, and Isabel Keating played her on Broadway in “The Boy from Oz.” (Peter Allen was her son-in-law.)

“Beyond the Rainbow” is “by-the-numbers.” Garland’s childhood in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, as well as Frank and Ethel Gumm’s marriage are passed over quickly, with no mention of Frank’s bisexuality. Beard hasn’t developed Ethel as the driven stage mother as Garland often painted her, and we need her to be a monster, if for no other reason than to create dramatic tension.

Early career highlights are punctuated with “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” Garland’s audition for MGM, but Mickey Rooney, who remained her lifelong best friend, is barely a character. As written, the filming of “The Wizard of Oz,” Garland’s first success, is dramatically uninteresting here, and there’s a blatant flaw, when Hedda Hopper announces that Warner Bros. won’t release Shirley Temple from her contract for the movie. Temple was under contract at 20th-Century Fox, not Warner’s. Every film buff knows that!

Beard throws in a line about a romance between Garland and Donald O’Connor. O’Connor was three years younger, and there’s no indication they were ever more than friends. The familiar story of her sneaking out of the house to date Jackie Cooper would have made a better scene, but her first marriage, to David Rose, is left out, even though she married him at 18 to get away from her mother. While she’s being romanced by the bisexual Vincente Minnelli, Beard includes a scene where she throws a bottle of pills into the East River, but it’s countered by Garland praising Minnelli for her performance in “Ziegfeld Follies,” because he proved she could act. “Ziegfeld Follies” is unmemorable, and it was the romantic comedy “The Clock,” which proved her acting abilities.

Probably the biggest problems with “Beyond the Rainbow” are, first, that there’s too much material. Secondly, neither the Judy or the Garland characters are remotely like the person who’s been described as “the funniest woman I ever met,” in countless TCM tributes. Beard assumes the audience knows who some of the minor characters, such as Kay Thompson are, but these roles lack definition. Possibly the strangest choice is having Garland sing “Stormy Weather,” Lena Horne’s signature song, to define the marriage to Sid Luft, rather than the more obvious “Man That Got Away,” the theme song from Garland’s best film performance, “A Star is Born,” which Luft produced at Warner Bros.

“Beyond the Rainbow” could be improved if it focused — not on the early years, with which we’re fairly familiar — but rather on the few productive years that led to her triumph at Carnegie Hall. She’d been accepted as a member of the Rat Pack, performing on television and in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra; she gave a gripping performance in “Judgment at Nuremberg,” and played a role based on herself in “I Could Go on Singing.” This career high point was countered with her marriage to gay actor, Mark Herron and occasional homelessness, not to mention professional jealousy as Liza Minnelli’s career began to rise.

There were good performances from Cathy Fuller, Clark Cruikshank and Kersten Rodau, while Norah Long tended to swallow the ends of her songs, but “Beyond the Rainbow” needs major renovation.

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