Bat Out of Hell: The Musical may be one of the more incomprehensible jukebox musicals ever made, but the sheer, unapologetic battiness of the spectacle makes it a hell of a lot of fun – for the first act, at least.
Chart-topping composer Jim Steinman has assembled 20 of his Wagnerian rock songs around a 2 1/2-hour story inspired by Peter Pan, a variety of postapocalyptic films and television series, and the enduring sex-in-cars mythology of American teenage life that emerged in postwar pop culture.
Now getting its North American premiere in Toronto, the show's draw for most will be hearing the tunes Steinman wrote for Meat Loaf's series of Bat Out of Hell albums (released in 1977, 1993 and 2006) crooned by a vocally talented cast – from All Revved Up With No Place to Go (an appropriate opener given the way the plot sputters and circles) to I'd Do Anything For Love (which closes the show on a high note).
For an audience member more excited by the Steinman compositions popularized by Air Supply (Making Love Out of Nothing At All) and Celine Dion (It's All Coming Back To Me Now) scattered through the score, however, it's director Jay Scheib's often brilliant staging that really makes the show – a kind of rock 'n' roll Regietheater that brings together live video and dance theatre with on-stage explosions and confetti cannons.
Strat (Andrew Polec, a wide-eyed Iggy Pop on the boards, but a full-throated Meat Loaf in the vocal chords) is the leader of a group of rock 'n' roll rebels called the Lost who for some reason never age past 18.
We first see these stunted immortals protesting outside of the Falco Tower – the evil HQ of a walking/talking signifier of unfettered wealth and corporate fascism.
Raven (Christina Bennington), Falco's daughter about to celebrate her 18th birthday, falls in love with Strat from this tower in which she is imprisoned. The rebel keeps lurking around her bedroom window – and I think we're supposed to find this romantic, rather than wonder what Steinman has sublimated into this tale of a man who's forever 18 (sure) stalking a camisole-clad teenage girl.
Falco (Rob Fowler) and his wife Sloane (Sharon Sexton) are the other two main characters – and they have much better onstage chemistry. Despite playing the older, bad guy, Fowler is styled like a cool dude from today rather than the 1960s – an MMA fighter with tats and a nipple ring. Sexton, meanwhile, injects a certain self-deprecating Celine Dion quality into Sloane that's funny and endearing.
Falco and Sloane re-enact their own teenage courtship in one of the first bat-guano crazy sequences orchestrated by Scheib and set designer Jon Bausor that make the musical so watchable. During their daughter's birthday party, they begin singing Paradise By the Dashboard Light – and a banquet table transforms into a pink convertible where they croon and canoodle while a baseball announcer does commentary on their trip around the "bases." It all ends with Raven coming on to crash the car into the orchestra pit – sending musicians scattering. It's enjoyably over-the-top nonsense – all performed with just enough of a wink by Fowler and Sexton.
A similarly spectacular sequence comes a few songs later, when Strat's motorcycle explodes – and parts of it fly into the air and form a giant sacred heart that floats over our hero as he rubs blood all over his bare chest.
It's a pity that this light, anarchic spirit disappears in the second act – which opens with an infuriating scene where the Lost, clad in orange jumpsuits and put in a cage under hanging corpses, are tortured by Falco as he walks around with a bat covered in barbed wire like the villain Negan in The Walking Dead, singing In the Land of the Pig, The Butcher is King.
Bat Out of Hell has already at this point established itself as a Baudrillardian spectacle of simulacra in which signs only point to other signs and there is no connection to anything you might call reality. But now, that becomes dangerous and unethical as Scheib starts to mix and match imagery from a popular TV show about zombies and real-life horrors such as what went on at Abu Ghraib. War crimes are not entertainment.
Next comes Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are – an overwrought Meat Loaf track about nebulous tragedy repurposed here by a series of Lost men we've barely met in a futile attempt to move us. The plot, never really less than perplexing, then becomes a random sequence of captures and escapes, breakups and reunions with a completely misguided, queer-coded tangent involving a Strat obsessive named Tink (Aran MacRae).
I kept waiting for the fun to return – but instead, power ballads line up after power ballad, forming an oppressive Wall of Sound built to keep subtle emotions from migrating into the world of the musical.
(The orchestrations could desperately use some variation; indeed, a deep-voiced, bluesy rendition of Two out of Three Ain't Bad by Danielle Steers – who plays a character you don't need to know about – is a highlight because it takes a familiar song and makes it surprising.)
I haven't mentioned Steinman's dialogue, which is all written in the cringeworthy style of the spoken-word section on the original Bat Out of Hell album. "On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?" Strat goes around asking various women. Ben Elton's book for We Will Rock You, the Queen musical, seems like a great work of dramatic literature by comparison.
A return to self-aware, engrossingly excessive spectacle does return by the finale. But Bat Out of Hell either needs its book beefed up, or its running time cut down if the producers want critics rather than fans to go to bat for it.
Bat Out of Hell: The Musical (mirvish.com) continues to Jan. 7, 2018.