Andrew Polec and Christina Bennington in ‘Bat Out of Hell.’ (Little Fang Photo)
By Ryan Leeds
“What part of my body hurts the most?” sings one of the characters near the end of Bat Out of Hell. For audience members forced to endure this dreck, it’s a tie between the brain and heart.
Jim Steinman’s musical, based on the massively popular album by Meat Loaf, has finally touched down in Manhattan and for crying out loud is it bad. The musical launched in London in 2017 followed by a Toronto engagement. Plans were announced for a U.S. tour but later scrapped and replaced solely with the current limited run at New York City Center. America has suffered enough these last three years, so the rest of the country can be grateful for this tiny blessing.
Steinman, the impresario composer who has given the world such hits as “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Holding Out for a Hero,” and “Making Love Out of Nothing at All,” certainly has a yen for melody and writing songs with definitive dramatic flair. His early writing days at Amherst College, followed by a tutelage under Joseph Papp point to that level of theatricality.
Steinman initially conceived Bat Out of Hell as a modern adaptation of Peter Pan but was met with denial from J.M. Barrie’s estate. Perhaps they had a prescient notion of what would be? Now, only loose references to the children’s tale remain intact. They are one of the few things that do remain intact in this otherwise slipshod show where little makes sense.
What does Falco (Bradley Dean), the dictator of the futuristic dystopian city Obsidian do besides keep his angelic daughter, Raven (Christina Bennington), and disenfranchised wife, Sloane (Lena Hall), shielded from “The Lost,” a group of teens who have inexplicably been frozen at 18?
And what has “The Lost” done to be so vilified when they are merely trying to — as Oprah would say — “live their best lives?” If loving rock and roll is their greatest crime, perhaps the setting should be 1956 at the Ed Sullivan Theater. Why has costume designer Jon Bausor saddled Hall with so many unflattering costumes, each of which resembles a budget-conscious drag queen? Why does Strat (Andrew Polec) look more like Christopher Lloyd’s Reverend Jim from the TV show Taxi than a young Meat Loaf? What is the idea behind Finn Ross’ constant camera use when the action on one side of the stage is projected onto large screens on the opposite side?
Director Jay Scheib’s staging is baffling at best. Raven’s parents suddenly appear in her bedroom from stage left during “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” Every entrance and exit until that point was made from the bedroom door or through the window. Did they break down a wall? Must every move in Xena Gusthart’s choreography mimic a football referee rather than a pack of rebellious youth? Will Grizabella come out and sing “Memory” at some point on Bausor’s apocalyptic junkyard set?
The creative team must think that there doesn’t need to be coherence when you can bamboozle ’em with strobe lights, glitter, fog, and a larger-than-life motorcycle with the same 1988 technology as the sewer boat from Phantom of the Opera.
As a sucker for Steinman, I went into this with cautious optimism. I had seen his Broadway production of Dance of the Vampires in 2002. It currently ranks among my top five cringe-worthy shows — and one of the biggest flops in Broadway history (A $12 million flop according to The New York Times). The problem is that it never found its tone. Toggling too much between drama and camp, most of the jokes never landed.
Bat out of Hell, in addition to its lack of a logical plot, suffers from pacing. Act I rips out of the gate with one fist-pumping rock number after the next, and like a Bugatti on the Autobahn, it’s a breakneck ride. In Act II, the never-ending journey was diverted to a parking lot in a retirement village. It’s a common problem among jukebox musicals; creatives believe that every song made famous by the artist(s) must be crammed into the work so that the audience leaves satisfied.
In spite of it all, there is a heavenly side, thanks to this immensely talented cast. The women, in particular, are vocally incredible. Bennington, Hall, and Steers are given demanding music, and they each carry us to nirvana. Polec also possesses robust pipes and commands the stage like a true rock star.
I’m not sure if hell actually exists, but I’ve sought absolution for my sins just in case it’s like this musical.
Bat Out of Hell
New York City Center
131 W. 55th Street, NYC
Through September 8, 2019
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.