Loud, flashy, dissipated, and crass – Bat Out of Hell is everything you’d expect in a rock-n-roll jukebox musical based on the 1970s mega-hits of Meat Loaf, who served as associate producer, and Jim Steinman, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics. An award-winning smash in England, the show made a hellish journey through its US transfer, with the cancellation of last year’s national tour, before arriving Off-Broadway (not on) for a brief summer engagement at New York City Center. With blatant appropriations from Romeo and Juliet (in its theme of star-crossed teenage lovers impeded by a tyrannical father), A Clockwork Orange (in its setting in a post-apocalyptic future of embattled youth), and Peter Pan (in its focus on “The Lost” – who are here frozen at eighteen and never to grow up), the overblown mash-up is a paean to fixated adolescence that aficionados of the songs might find brazenly hilarious, but others will see as flagrantly juvenile.
Constructed around nineteen lengthy numbers by Steinman, including such fan favorites as the eponymous “Bat Out of Hell,” “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth,” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “All Revved Up With No Place to Go,” “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” and “Making Love Out of Nothing at All,” the cliché-ridden narrative revolves around the unlikely attraction of Strat, leader of The Lost, and Raven, repressed daughter of the brutal dictator Falco and his long-suffering heavy-drinking wife Sloane. Predictably, battles ensue between and within the generations, lives are lost (or not), friends help friends (or not), and eternal youth and love prevail.
Directed by Jay Scheib, the in-your-face histrionic production (akin to Meat Loaf’s melodramatic performance style) is replete with the requisite devices of chest-baring males, scantily-clad females, extended tongues, crotch obsession, and overall concupiscence that rock concerts and music videos are made of. The artistic design, too, has all of the bombast of a rock musical, with its check list of dystopian futuristic punk-style costumes (by Jon Bausor; original costume design by Meentje Nielsen), blindingly bright strobes, spots, strips, and colored lighting (by Patrick Woodroofe), pre-recorded and live-feed videos and close-ups (video design by Finn; live videography by Paulina Jurzec), glittering confetti blasts and fog effects, and ear-ringing sound (by Gareth Owen). It all takes place in an elaborate bi-level set (also by Bausor) that contrasts the luxury of Raven’s family home with The Deep End dive bar and and squalid living conditions of Strat and The Lost, in a visualization of Steinman’s dictum, “If you don’t go over the top, how are you going to see what’s on the other side?”
But the sensibility oddly shifts gears from the inane to “the flesh and the fantasy” to the serious as erratically as the characters drive their motorcycles (every young rebel, with or without a cause, must have one), without ever hitting the heights of parody or camp, the express reverence for the genre, or the poignancy of never truly coming of age or maturing. Instead, the show leaves us wondering if it’s intentionally laughable (or not).
As with most jukebox musicals, it’s the music, not the book, that’s the main attraction. Starring Andrew Polec as Strat and Christina Bennington as Raven (both from the original British world premiere), the cast delivers the high-decibel score with full-out intensity, backed by an eight-piece band led by musical director Ryan Cantwell (with music coordination by Howard Joines; musical supervision and additional arrangements by Michael Reed). Among the vocal highlights are the duet of The Lost’s Zahara (Danielle Steers) and Jagwire (Tyrick Wiltez Jones) on “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” (with Steers singing the lead and thereby smartly reversing the implicit misogyny of Meat Loaf’s original) and the blockbuster rendition of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” by Falco (Bradley Dean) and Sloan (the outstanding Lena Hall).
Unfortunately the general quality of the acting doesn’t live up to the powerhouse vocals, with performances that seem more recitative than empathetic and humor that falls flat – much of which can be blamed on the jejune material (e.g., Falco calling Strat’s bestie Tink – well played and sung by Avionce Hoyles – by the wrong name, over and over and over again). Once again, Hall is the standout, masterfully landing both the comedy and the heart of her dissatisfied character. The choreography (adapted by Xena Gusthart) is also problematic, with a lot of gratuitous high-kicking and rolling around on the floor to reveal the women’s panties and garters, out-of-step executions of group numbers, and goofy movements that seem mismatched with the lyrics (like the distracting back-up dancing in “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”).
If you like the music of Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf and want to rock out to it, Bat Out of Hell might provide you with an entertaining trip down memory lane. But if you’re expecting a polished piece of musical theater, you might want to ask yourself, as Strat does Raven, “On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?”
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 35 minutes, including an intermission.