“Bat Out of Hell” is a frequently enjoyable jukebox musical running at New York City Center through September 8, using the muscular rock opera anthems from singer Meat Loaf’s trilogy of best-selling albums of the same name to tell a tale of impossible young love in a dystopian future Manhattan. Yes, it feels like an MTV glam metal music video circa 1980 stretched out to nearly three hours. Yes, it’s an adolescent’s fantasy of rebellion, or more precisely a boomer’s fond recollection of adolescent rebellion, featuring both a roaring motorcycle and a 60s convertible, as well as tight black leather pants, black eyeliner, bare chests and red bandanna headbands. Yes, it’s loud, long, messy, and, largely, ludicrously self-serious.
But what makes “Bat Out of Hell” so watchable, at least for the first two hours, is the magnetism of the cast. The performers are talented, charismatic….and, let’s be frank, rock star sexy. They go a long way towards helping us get through all that is clunky and cheesy about the show, especially a confusing plot jerry-rigged out of a mix of B-movie genres…
Andrew Polec (leading candidate for future rock star) stars as Strat, the leader of The Lost, a gang of youth that aren’t really young. You see, there was an apocalypse that swept Manhattan out into the middle of the ocean and eternally froze The Lost at the age of 18. They’re orphaned, homeless, and hanging out in the subway station beneath the destroyed Museum of Natural History, which The Lost have converted to a garage and bar. For some reason I didn’t catch, Manhattan has been renamed Obsidian, and is ruled by a tyrant named Falco (Bradley Dean.) During a clash between the Lost and Falco’s riot-costumed militia, Strat loses his shirt (the first of many times his torso will be on display, sometimes smudged with dirt or streaked with blood.) Falco’s daughter Raven (Christina Bennington), who is about to turn 18, rushes into the riot, picks up Strat’s shirt, stares into his eyes. The two become obsessed with one another.
Falco is of course adamantly against any such romance, but Raven finds a secret ally in her mother Sloane (portrayed, in a casting coup, by Lena Hall, Tony-winner for Hedwig and the Angry Inch)
The musical, which made its debut in England in 2017, is officially called “Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell The Musical.” Steinman has written the book and all of the songs. He also wrote all seven songs on Meat Loaf’s 1977 debut solo album, “Bat Out of Hell,” which has become one of the best-selling albums of all times; all seven from that album are among the almost two dozen in the musical. (Only a handful of Steinman songs in the musical are from the follow-up albums “Bat Out of Hell II” released 16 years after “Bat Out of Hell” and “Bat Out of Hell III” released 13 years after “Bat Out of Hell II.” ) At their best, Steinman’s songs have catchy tunes, and they’re in the hands of real rock pros. My favorite (in part because its melody is the most familiar to me) is the song “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” It’s sung as a duet between stand-out Danielle Steers as Zahara and Tyrick Wiltez Jones as Jagwire, who are both members of the Lost. (I’d explain their subplot if I thought it existed for any reason other than to justify the song.)
I want you, I need you
But there ain’t no way
I’m ever gonna love you
Now don’t be sad coz two out of three ain’t bad
While nobody would confuse Steinman’s lyrics with Cole Porter’s, it would be neither fair nor accurate to call them witless. That description should probably be reserved for the book. In the song “Paradise in the Dashboard Light,” Falco and Sloane recall what it was like when they were hot and steamy teens, singing as they hug atop that convertible:
Ain’t no doubt about it we were doubly blessed
Coz we were barely seventeen and we were barely dressed
Dean and Hall gamely attack this song; it is one of the few moments in the show that I was convinced was both effectively and intentionally humorous. But then, while Falco and Sloane are groping one another atop the convertible, a sports announcer suddenly materializes to narrate a baseball play that we see in a video projection, in which a batter makes it to second base. Getting to second base, get it? Undeniably hilarious if you’re in fourth grade.
The projections in general are overused. Every scene that takes place in Raven’s enclosed bedroom in Falco Tower is captured live by a videographer and projected in eerily magnified close-up – which was interesting for maybe the first three times.
Excess is director Jay Scheib’s guiding principle. Those video screens compete for attention in a set cluttered with a dark muddled array of industrial-looking metal scaffolding and tunnels, a looming tower, a painted nighttime skyline, the stage on occasion blasted with lightning flashes and thunderous sound effects. We are bombarded with mylar string or confetti three times in Act I – an effect that even the most over-the-top shows usually wait to inflict until the finale.
It’s worth noting that Steinman originally conceived of the songs on Meat Loaf’s debut album as a musical called “Neverland,” a rock adaptation of Peter Pan. So this musical could be said to be more than 40 years in the making.
This has its downside. There is a subplot involving a member of The Lost named Tink (Avionce Hoyles), who has a crush on Strat, and kisses him, then apologizes. Could Tink, in a holdover from Steinman’s original conception, be the writer’s transmutation of Tinker Bell? (Strat even at one point playfully calls him Tinkerboy.) If turning Tinker Bell into a gay character isn’t offensive enough, Tink is so jealous of Strat’s attraction to Raven that he betrays him, and then suffers the fate of nearly every gay character depicted on stage prior to 1968 (spoiler alert): He dies – even though I thought The Lost are supposed to be immortal. Anyway, I don’t think the show is deliberately homophobic. For one, Avionce gets to sing a soft, sympathetic ballad, “Not Allowed To Love.” There are also brief moments in Xena Gusthart’s choreography that crudely simulate same-sex sexual activity, apparently equating homoerotic with hip (a la Rocky Horror Picture Show, but without the campy self-awareness.)
This strained effort at being transgressive is a symptom of the show’s approach, which is all about posing, rather than engaging us emotionally, despite all the grim faces and operatic declarations. Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of The Hell The Musical is full of appealing performers, hard-charging songs, and hot air. I didn’t leave mad, coz two out of three ain’t bad.
Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell The Musical is on stage at New York City Center (131 W 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, New York, N.Y.10019 ) through September 8, 2019.
Bat Out Of Hell – The Musical
Book, music, and lyrics by Jim Steinman, Directed by Jay Scheib, choreography adapted by Xena Gusthart. Musical supervision and additional arrangements by Michael Reed, set design by Jon Bausor, costume design by Bausor & Meentje Nielson, lighting design by Patrick Woodroffe, video design by Finn Ross, sound design by Gareth Owen, orchestration by Steve Sidwell, and musical direction by Ryan Cantwell. Featuring Andrew Polec as Strat, Christina Bennington as Raven, Lena Hall as Sloane, Bradley Dean as Falco, Avionce Hoyles as Tink, Danielle Steers as Zahara, and Tyrick Wiltez Jones as Jagwire. ThWill Branner, Lincoln Clauss, Kayla Cyphers, Jessica Jaunich, Paulina Jurzec,Adam Kemmerer, Nick Martinez, Harper Miles, Erin Mosher, Aramie Payton, Andres Quintero, Tiernan Tunnicliffe, and Kaleb Wells. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.