The Hunger Artists, one of the longest established storefront theaters in Orange County, is currently staging Bat Boy: the Musical. One of the weirdest subjects to ever crawl out of a creatively deranged mind and into the light of musical theater, it's based on a 1992 "story" in the Weekly World News "newspaper" about about a half boy/half bat creature found in a cave.
Everyone who thinks about these things has an opinion on what the term "storefront theater" means, but one way of defining them is to determine what they are not. They are not professional theaters, ala South Coast Repertory or the Laguna Playhouse, because they can't pay their talent anything close to a real-world wage for their time and effort. They are not community theaters because they don't spend their time entirely committed to churning out tired audience-friendly musicals and audience-friendly Neil Simonesque plays that might entertain occasionally but have been done to death.
They tend to be smaller companies in terms of their physical spaces, tend to be started by younger people a few years out of college, and then tend, over the years, to rely on a steady infusion of younger talent to keep the older, seasoned members from slicing their wrists in frustration at wasting their lives on a medium that garners little attention and far less financial recompense.
But they are also the saving grace of any theater community, offering far more adventurous--and affordable--fare than the big dogs do usually.
Orange County's storefront theater movement started, as fortune would have it, right around the same time the OC Weekly launched: 1996. At the time, there were three storefronts: Alternative Repertory Theater, in Santa Ana; Stages Theatre, in Anaheim, and Revolving Door Productions (of which I was a member), in Fullerton. The first and last expired shortly after, but Stages remains, and was joined soon by Rude Guerrilla, which began producing in 1997, landed its open space in 1999 and closed its doors last year (Some key members of its braintrust relocated in Fullerton this year as the Monkey Wrench Collective). The Hunger Artists was next, launching in 1998, hanging out in Santa Ana for a few years before moving to Fullerton, followed by the Chance Theater, which opened its Anaheim space in 1999, and the Maverick Theater (2002), based in Fullerton. Most recently, the Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble and Theatre Out, both in Santa Ana, have joined the lineup.
All have far different philosophies, prodution values, talent pools and resources to draw from, but each has carved its own niche, whether it's the Maverick's engaging blend of stage and screen, the Monkey Wrench's committment to highly visceral, rough-around-the-edges fare, and the Chance's increasing professionalism.
However, each has, to varying levels, delved into the kind of material that, 10 years ago, would never have been seen at a local storefront: musical theater. (The two exemptions to this are Breath of Fire and the Monkey Wrench; it'll probably be a cold day in Needles before either of those highly politicized and socially conscious troupes tackle Oklahoma!)
In typical storefront fashion, the type of musical fare our locals have focused on is anything but the execrable stuff you'll see at the Fullerton Civic Light Opera or even the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
While there has been the occasional production of a big Broadway show like The Producers or Cabaret, the type of musicals produced by local storefronts have either been really sophisticated (such as anything by Stephen Sondheim) or veritable anti-musicals: Raucous, musical pastiches that are intentionally self-conscious and seem to lampoon the form as much as use it to get dumb people into the seats.
Those kind of musicals include Hedwig and the Angry Inch, mounted by the Hunger Artists, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, produced several times by the Maverick, Reefer Madness, produced by both Stages and the Maverick, Urinetown!, also at the Maverick, and one Roscoe Spitzer is Afraid of Dying, a folk-rock musical written by a guy with the last name of Beers.
File Bat Boy: The Musical, in that category as well. The show debuted as Los Angeles' Actors' Gang in 1997. It opened Off-Broadway in 2001 and subsequently blew up, receiving productions around the world. Stages produced the first local production of the quirky, off-beat show, and now it's the Hunger Artists' turn.
And, since we're on the subject of musicals: next weekend, Stages wheels out So Alone Concert, featuring just the music that helped make local playwright, and Fullerton College theater instructor, William Mittler's musical bio of Johnny Thunder and the New York Dolls, So Alone, such a smash hit the handful of times it was produced.
And, finally, on a musical note, this is the last weekend of the Maverick's The Producers, while the Chance's version of The Who's Tommy, runs through August 15
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Bat Boy: The Musical, Hunger Artists, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Thru Aug. 15. $18-$20. www.hungerartists.com.
So Alone Concert, Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Opens Aug 6. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Sun., 6 p.m. Closes Aug. 6. wwwstagesoc.org.
The Who's Tommy, Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m. Sat., 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Thru Aug. 15. www.chancetheater.com.
The Producers, Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Sun., 3 p.m. Thru July 31. www.mavericktheater.com.