By Jim Steinman; Directed by Jay Scheib
Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 9.8.19
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street
by Dan Rubins on 8.17.19
Andrew Polec and the ensemble of Bat Out Of Hell. Photo by Specular.
BOTTOM LINE: Jim Steinman's batty, bloated Bat Out Of Hell is all revved up with no place to go.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” the tyrannical Falco asks after his bitter wife Sloane has made some snide remark. Replies Sloane, “Haven’t got a clue.” That exchange, in the second scene of Jim Steinman’s Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical, just about sums it up: the characters are about as lost as the audience.
It’s not that following the plot of Bat Out Of Hell, which has had two West End stints over the past few years, is challenging in itself. What little storyline there is splashes Peter Pan and Romeo and Juliet with dystopian lighter fluid while capturing neither the former tale’s whimsy nor the latter’s pathos, not to mention Barrie’s sense of adventure and Shakespeare’s bawdy sense of humor. Bat Out of Hell, despite being utterly ridiculous, actually takes itself seriously, like an un-ironic Rocky Horror Show.
In 2030, Strat (Andrew Polec) is the leader of The Lost, a group of teenagers trapped forever by a genetic mutation in their adolescence (they won’t grow up!) and living in abandoned subway tunnels. Strat falls in love with Raven (Christina Bennington), the daughter of the powerful Falco (Bradley Dean), who seeks to destroy the Lost for reasons there just isn’t time—in the show’s nearly three hours—to explain. There’s a character named Tink (Avionce Hoyles), a shout-out to Tinkerbell, but Strat doesn’t even fly—he just rides a motorcycle.
Bat Out Of Hell’s aggressive incoherence comes not from its paint-by-numbers forbidden love story, but from its shoehorned songbook, a catalog of what feels like every melody Jim Steinman ever wrote (except "Total Eclipse of the Heart," for some reason). That includes every song from the original 1977 Meat Loaf album, most of the 1993 follow-up (Bat Out Of Hell II: Back into Hell), and other assorted hits like Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” Air Supply's "Making Love Out of Nothing At All," and non-hits like “Who Needs the Young,” which Steinman wrote for a college show in 1969. Songs like “I’d Do Anything For Love,” “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad,” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” show Steinman’s knack for addictive hooks and shrewdly subversive lyrics, but stringing nineteen of them together also demonstrates why that 1977 album is only 45 minutes long: a little goes a long way.
That’s especially true when the songs have nothing at all to do with the story, each scene flapping madly towards the next big hit. The show veers between structuring itself around song lyrics and ignoring what the characters are singing altogether: Strat crashes his motorcycle simply because the title song’s lyrics describe the singer “torn and twisted at the foot of his burning bike,” but Raven pleads “Can’t you see my faded Levis bursting apart?” while wearing no pants at all.
Meanwhile, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” already a nearly nine-minute dramatic playlet in its original form, gets a literal staging that tells us nothing of value about Falco and Sloane (Lena Hall, a Tony winner for Hedwig and the Angry Inch) while robbing the song of its teasing appeal. Listeners can no longer imagine the scene for themselves.
And let’s hope you know your “Heaven Can Wait” from your “For Crying Out Loud,” because you won’t get much help on the lyrics from the singers’ hazy diction or the murky echo effects. As the personality-free young lovers, Polec and Bennington sound impressive, but that’s about it. Hall, similarly ill-served by Steinman’s book (which ultimately requires all its women to forgive their undeserving mates), gets to show off her high-belting rock rasp and some slapstick chops, like her face-first dive over a sofa, but she can’t deliver dramatic substance where there just isn’t any.
While I have no idea who Zahara (Danielle Steers) and Jagwire (Tyrick Wiltez Jones) are, as far as plot goes, their impassioned duetting on “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad” is a highlight. And Hoyles, as Tink, gets to offer up a sweet surprise—“I’m Not Allowed to Love,” a simple, heartfelt ballad from Steinman’s tragically unfinished Batman: The Musical.
I’d be remiss not to mention Jay Scheib’s boisterous staging—all confetti, explosions, live video feeds from around Jon Bausor’s tiered set, and speed-chase projections. With the exception of choreography (adapted by Xena Gusthart from earlier productions) that feels like the work of an over-ambitious zumba instructor (and aside from some very eyebrow-raising wigs to complement the ensemble’s leather ensemble), the visual life of the production could be effective—if it wasn’t serving such vapidity. Twice, a body double mimics the actions happening on the stage on a duplicate set jutting out above: that’s kind of neat, but what’s it supposed to mean? Haven’t got a clue.
(Bat Out Of Hell plays at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, through September 8, 2019. The running time is 2 hours, 40 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 1:30 and 7. Tickets are $49-$249 and are available at nycitycenter.org or by calling 212-581-1212.)
Bat Out Of Hell is by Jim Steinman (music, book, and lyrics). Directed by Jay Scheib. Choreography adapted by Xena Gusthart. Set Design and Costume Design by Jon Bausor. Video Design by Finn Ross. Lighting Design by Patrick Woodroofe. Sound Design by Gareth Owen. Orchestrations by Steve Sidwell. Music Director is Ryan Cantwell. Stage Manager is Ryan J. Bell.
The cast is Andrew Polec, Christina Bennington, Bradley Dean, Lena Hall, Avionce Hoyles, Tyrick Wiltez Jones, Paulina Jurzec, Danielle Steers, Will Branner, Lincoln Clauss, Kayla Cyphers, Jessica Jaunich, Adam Kemmerer, Nick Martinez, Harper Miles, Erin Mosher, Aramie Payton, Andres Quintero, Tiernan Tunnicliffe, and Kaleb Wells.