Bat Out of Hell: a spectacular guilty pleasure with leather lungs 26 October 2017.
by Drew Rowsome-
But when you touch me like this
And you hold me like that
I just have to admit
That it's all coming back to me . . .
It's all coming back, it's all coming back to me now
The songs of Jim Steinman are the ultimate guilty pleasure. Passionate, bombastic, blessed with soaring and ear worm melodies, and, like a classically crafted short story, with a little twist, they are unparalleled examples of craftmanship. Steinman was most successful with his collaboration with Meat Loaf for Bat Out of Hell, one of the best selling albums of all time and, not coincidentally in this case, one that is imprinted in our very DNA.
The entire audience for Bat Out of Hell the musical, walks in with a playlist already singing in their head. And the visceral jolt of joy when a favourite - and face it, they're all favourites - begins gives Bat Out of Hell a huge hometown advantage: this is the soundtrack of our youth. I could go on about my personal relationship with the Bat Out of Hell album, but that would negate that every person in the audience has their own relationship with these songs. They are a guilty, or not-so guilty, pleasure across the boards.
The songs are theatrical, telling stories, probing at emotions and themes beyond the usual scope of rock n roll. And Steinman also has a tendency to milk the emotions with soaring strings and modulations adding to the inherent power of the music and lyrics. If only he were as good a book writer as he is a composer. The plot of Bat Out of Hell the musical is a riff on Peter Pan with the addition of some vague sci-fi elements and the pilfering of other sacred texts including Romeo and Juliet, Metropolis, the Ponce de Leon Fountain of Life myth (I think: the concept is a bit muddy for a pure spring), Toni Basil's choreography for "Love is a Battlefield," and the episode of Bewitched where Darrin discovers Samantha is immortal.
Not that it matters, the audience is there to rock out to beloved anthems. And the anthems are delivered with the leather-lunged bravado we have come to expect from a Steinman production. Their voices soar to the rafters - assisted by the irresistible singing-along from the audience - but with a certain sameness that gives an advantage to voices with character (ie: the difference between Céline Dion and Bonnie Tyler). Danielle Steers' sass and quirk gives her numbers a differential that cuts through the sameness of the belting throughout Bat Out of Hell. She even sells her part in the sacrilegious recreation of the iconic Cher duet "Dead Ringer For Love," she is a phenomenon.
Andrew Polec is a powerful leading man and his vocals get as much attention as every time, fortunately often, he doffs his shirt. Ditto for Rob Fowler who is a villain one can really root for and lust after. But neither can compete with the sexy debauched Sharon Sexton who works a Stockard Channing charm to tuck a role that makes absolutely no sense under her arm and earns an ovation. Billy Lewis Jr also stands out vocally, but Giovanni Spano continually upstages with his bulging muscles, Southern twang laid over raise-the-roof notes, incessant lifting of the disposable chorus girls, and the single tightly-fitted prison outfit.
Some of the musical arrangement choices are questionable. Guitars are used mainly as transitions (until the finale which is spectacular) and some of the sonics are more Burt Bacharach than rock n roll. Sexton and Fowler duet on a huge production number version of "Paradise By The Dashboard Lights" that is a '70s variety show number before escalating giddily into a camp climax that smashes the fourth wall, again makes no sense, and is utterly hilarious. It is one of innumerable occasions where a spectacular and very clever set provides the punctuation - explosions, flames, lighting effects, lots of glitter - to make sure that the audience gets their money worth. The moment where a motorcycle crash combines with mobiles, projections and morphs into a bleeding heart is visionary camp taken to an extreme I have only fantasized about.
The Peter Pan mythology has its own idiosyncrasies and Bat Out of Hell can't help but give extra weight to the love story/tortured relationship between Sexton and Fowler, as if the elder Darlings took precedence over Wendy. And the sexual tension is all between the men, made literal with Aran MacRae as the mohawked Tink. Of all the Lost Boys (and, in this case, Girls) only Steers is given anything to do. But that is fine, as the camaraderie, hugs and interplay between Polec, Spano and Lewis Jr is an intriguing story that gives heft to an otherwise lightweight storyline.
But what matters is the songs. When Polec asks, "On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?" the answer is an emphatic "Yes!" Guilty pleasures are often the best. It's all coming back to me now.
Gotta be damned, you know I want to be damned
Dancing through the night
Dancing through the night with you . . .
Before the final crack of dawn
So we gotta make the most of our one night together
Bat Out of Hell continues until Sun, Dec 24 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. mirvish.com