REVIEW: “Bat Out of Hell—The Musical” is exactly what you think it is
There is an unmistakably satisfying virtue to be found in attending a piece of reverse-engineered, unabashedly commercial theatre that knows *exactly* what it is and for whom it is meant.
Such is the experience of seeing “Bat Out of Hell—The Musical”, the 2017 Evening Standard Award winning Best New Musical based on, you guessed it, Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” trilogy of albums that have collectively sold over 100 million copies worldwide.
The life’s work of rock legend Jim Steinman (“Dance of the Vampires”)—who penned the music and lyrics for the albums and the book for this long-gestating stage musical—“Bat Out of Hell” is a fever dream arena-style rock show mashup of “Peter Pan” and “Romeo and Juliet”, guaranteed to delight Meat Loaf fans and those adjacent who know just what they are getting themselves into, and amuse anyone else who ends up in a seat at New York City Center for this month-long run.
Let me make one thing clear: this is not an especially good musical.
But let’s also be realistic here: “Bat Out of Hell” was never going to be a “good musical”. Instead, whether intending to or not, Mr. Steinman, avante-garde director Jay Scheib, choreographer Xena Gusthart, their design collaborators, and cast have created something so absurdly non-self-serious and surprisingly self-aware that it actually works, and is genuinely entertaining.
Set in the post-apocalyptic fictional city of Obsidian (a comic book-like Manhattan) in the year 2030 after the “chemical wars” that have rendered a select group of teenage street people mutants, forever frozen at age 18, Strat (Andrew Polec), the leader of these co-ed “lost boys” dubbed “the lost”, falls for Raven (Christina Bennington), the Rapunzel-like daughter of the teens’ foe Falco (Bradley Dean), a “tyrannical leader”, and his unsatisfied housewife, Sloane (Lena Hall, a Tony Award winner for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”).
Tink (Avionce Hoyles), our Tinkerbell, a jealous tween in love with Strat; Zahara (Danielle Steers) one of “the lost” with a day job as Falco and Sloane’s maid; and Jagwire (Tyrick Wiltez Jones), her unrequited lover, all nonsensically figure in the story reverse-engineered, “Mamma Mia!”-style, for the purpose of interpolating beloved rock anthems from the “Bat Out of Hell” albums, aided by the fact of those songs’ inherent theatricality.
Bizarrely incoherent for the first 15 minutes or so, the setting, predicament, and relationship of the characters isn’t explained until around scene three, after which the musical beats rather conventionally towards its conclusion.
Specifics be damned, “Bat Out of Hell” operates in broad strokes and hackneyed generalities with the overall depth of a music video story. And that’s precisely what the audience is here for. As my seat mate astutely analogized at intermission: it’s like porn, we don’t care who ordered the pizza, we just want to hear live renditions of “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” or “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)”. And we do.
The silver lining of “Bat Out of Hell” is that the cast is superbly talented and the music sounds incredible—Ms. Steers and Mr. Jones’ duet “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” is a highlight—performed with a propulsively explosive energy that rocks the auditorium.
At the end of the day, that is this musical’s raison d’etre: to give fans of the albums a chance to hear the songs they love performed well within the loose framework of a story in line with its musical aesthetic and sensibility. On this mark, “Bat Out of Hell” knocks it out of the park. It isn’t Sondheim, but it’s not trying to be.
Does it matter that Strat and Raven have no chemistry? Does it matter that we never find out just who Falco is? Does it matter that these mutant teenagers are immortal, yet Strat is killed then brought back to life using Raven’s blood? Why ask such questions where there are no satisfying answers? While Mr. Steinman would have benefitted from a collaborator to make sense of his many incomplete thoughts, the show makes up for its incoherence with its exuberant extravagance.
Amid the gloriously inapposite group routine choreography, impressively booming rock vocals, and infectiously toe-tapping tunes awash in nostalgia, “Bat Out of Hell” is irrepressibly entertaining and hard to hate or even resent (bloated as it is) because it never tries to be anything other than what it is. For Meat Loaf fans, it’s a must-see.
Bottom Line: “Bat Out of Hell—The Musical” is exactly that: a reverse-engineered jukebox musical fashioned from the beloved tunes of Meat Loaf’s eponymous trilogy of albums. This is not an especially good musical, but its virtue is that it isn’t trying to be—instead delivering on the audience’s desire to hear the songs they love performed well within the loose framework of a story in line with its musical aesthetic and sensibility. A must-see for Meat Loaf fans.
“Bat Out of Hell—The Musical”
New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: two hours, 40 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: August 8, 2019
Final Performance: September 8, 2019