Another Bloody Musical

Bat Boy. Photo courtesy Stages Theater.

It took about a decade for Orange County'sstorefront theaters to embrace that most middlebrow of theatrical entertainments: the musical. Musicals remain the life's blood for nearly every other kind of producing entity—from powerhouse Broadway stages and national touring productions to high schools and the kind of lovably woeful amateur troupes helmed by the Corky St. Clairs (of Waiting for Guffman fame) of the world. Still, this county's most interesting companies spent their formative years developing their own talent, aesthetic and direction.

And while those troupes still stage everything from original work to Shakespeare, musicals are quickly emerging as both big moneymakers and significant artistic creations.

The latter feat comes thanks to storefront theaters' lack of space, time or budgets. (Knew there was a silver lining in there somewhere!) They simply can't mount the kind of soul-sucking, brain-deadening toxins pissed out by Andrew Lloyd Webber and his bombastic cronies. Instead, they must focus on either stripped-down versions of big musicals or opt for musical fare heavier on humor and irreverence than stage dressing and production.

Luckily for all involved—actors, audiences and the occasional curmudgeonly critic—a torrent of small-scale, idiosyncratic musicals is flowing from the theatrical spigot these days, and OC theater companies are taking full advantage.

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The latest in an impressive line of such shows is Bat Boy: The Musical, receiving its Orange County premiere at Stages, the dean of Orange County's storefront theaters. In terms of tone and quirkiness, Bat Boyclosely resembles two other recently produced Fullerton musicals: Reefer Madness!done at Stages last year and the Maverick Theater's Urinetown. While not as tuneful or smart as its cousins, Bat Boyhas a better story—and is equally as fun. Though it's never remarked upon in the script, Bat Boy, which was developed by Tim Robbins' crew in Los Angeles and became an off-Broadway smash in 2000, takes its lead from the trashy pages of the supermarket tabloid Weekly World News. The half-boy, half-bat creature was unveiled in 1992, after, the story goes, it was discovered in a West Virginia cave.

That's where the musical and the ongoing evolution of the Bat Boy mythos in the tabloid part ways. In the musical, a group of stoned teenage hicks discover the strange creature and basically taunt it into attacking one of them. They capture it and return it to the home of a rather corrupt veterinarian and his impossibly June Cleaver-ish wife. She develops a maternal bond with the pointy-eared monstrosity, while he just wants it dead, since he's under lots of pressure from townspeople about an unexplained plague of dying cows. A blood-sucking, nonsense-babbling troglodyte is exactly what this town doesn'tneed in order to pacify its fears.

What unfolds is a constantly engaging, frequently hilarious and often unruly blend of of Pygmalion, Frankenstein, EC Comics, and the star-crossed teenage angst of Romeo and Julietand Rebel Without a Cause.

This T.J. Dawson-directed production lacks polish (the use of a canned score and uneven miking causes auditory problems at times) but compensates through sheer bravado. The ensemble is uniformly good, but the leads are exquisite, particularly Daniel Dawson's Bat Boy, who must transform from a half-naked, blind freak into a beret-wearing pupil with perfect British diction, and Laura Dickinson's tightly wound Meredith, who possesses all the homespun charm of Marion Cunningham with just the right dash of Joan Crawford's Mommie Dearest.

While too goofy to truly tug the heartstrings and too far-fetched to demand halfway-serious analysis, Bat Boyworks precisely because it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what is: humor in the most jugular of veins.

Bat Boy at Stages, 400 E. Commonwealth, Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-3032; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through May 13. $18.

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