Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts where he is also a critic and contributor.
Bat out of Hell, the Jim Steinman musical enjoying its North American premiere at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, opened just last Wednesday . . . and was promptly extended to January 7, 2018. It traces its origins to the 1977 album of the same name performed by the immortal Meat Loaf and written by Steinman. The album sold 43 million copies worldwide, and spawned Bat out of Hell sequel albums in 1993 and 2006. Now, songs from the three albums have been strung together as the spine of Bat out of Hell The Musical. And on the surface, this seems a better idea than many contemporary “jukebox musicals” (for instance, two in development that are based on the music of the Go-Go’s and Foreigner . . .).
There are three reasons Bat out of Hell seems a good fit for the stage. First, Steinman knows only one way to write a song: full tilt. His specialty is overwrought psychodrama packed with fever-dream imagery and ear-candy hooks. Second, Meat Loaf’s peerless vocals ring emotionally true, as he shifts effortlessly between full-throttle bombast and soft-spoken heartbreak . . . often within the same song. Finally, the 1977 album proclaimed itself with a cover illustration rendered by famed Heavy Metal magazine and comic artist Richard Corben. Featuring a motorcyclist bursting forth from a graveyard and rocketing into the sky, this iconic image feels like it was ripped straight from a graphic novel. Back in 1977, I looked at it and I thought to myself, there just has to be a deeper story behind this visual and the emotional ambush of the song’s music . . . right?
Well, now Bat out of Hell The Musical gives us that story behind that image, and even brings the image to life right before intermission. And when you see this musical, you should certainly be thinking in terms of graphic novels. The setting is dystopian: a dark future in the city of Obsidian, which is ruled by the dictatorial Commander-in-Chief Falco. His chief opponents are “the Lost”, young street people whose eighteenth birthdays have “frozen” their DNA, making them eternally youthful. The inventive set, designed by Jon Bausor, uses vertical space like a four-panel graphic novel page, with two upper spaces which are building interiors, and a lower space that spills from a tunnel and pool on the left to an open area in front of the bottom story of the building on right. Angular lines jut out – comic-book style – to separate the upper level from lower. It’s a neat effect (though the outcropping of the second level cramps the stage space. When the entire company is on stage dancing for the bigger numbers, they barely fit.)
At their best, graphic novels are a seamless fusion of words and images. At their best, they are a symbiosis of a writer and artist, whose perfect merger elevates the story… and then the reader joins to fill in the “gutter” (all those spaces between the individual panels) and extend the ideas of the story. At their worst, graphic novels prioritize the words or the images. You get an amazing story that looks lousy . . . or a terrible story that looks great. In both of those situations, what the reader is left to do is figure out what’s gone wrong. Unfortunately, Bat out of Hell The Musical is a bit like one of these types of graphic novels.
Because it’s a musical, we have three, not two elements to consider: the music, the visuals and the story. The music is awesome and stage-worthy. For middle-aged audiences, these songs are already imprinted on their consciousness, and they are belted with energy and impact by nearly all the performers. The four leads deserve particular praise: Andrew Polec (Strat), Christina Bennington (Raven), Rob Fowler (Falco) and Sharon Sexton (Sloane). In terms of the visuals, the staging and costumes do a great job of conjuring this dystopian future world of Obsidian, while the dancing is a bit hit and miss. There are several moments where one character is singing a Steinman epic power ballad to another person who looks fidgety and uncomfortable . . . like they can’t figure out what to do to stop the emotional outburst from blowing them off the stage. Too often, the choreography relies on characters standing still, walking slowly, or simply jumping around the obstacle course at the front of the set.
On balance, Bat out of Hell The Musical looks and sounds great. The problem is the story. The plot is a pastiche of every angsty teen drama you’ve ever seen, with dashes of Peter Pan and The Lost Boys thrown in for good measure. Its predictable love plot is centered on bad boy Strat, leader of the Lost, and sheltered Raven, daughter of Falco, who yearns to experience life. But don’t blink . . . because if you do, you’ll miss how this plot spawns three additional love plots (one involving the heroine’s parents), plus an unrequited fourth involving a curious character named Tink (Aran McRae). The dialogue that delivers these plots is limited and often cringeworthy. And it’s telling that, when you arrive at your seat before the show, a throwback print “newspaper” titled The Obsidian Times is slung across the seatback. It provides brief articles on the Lost, Obsidian politics, and Falco and Raven’s family. It’s fun, and it’s a great reason to make sure you’re in your seat 10 minutes before curtain. It’s also a tacit admission that you won’t get enough information from the musical itself to convey the situation and the setting adequately. Without reading The Obsidian Times, you will struggle to follow the plot, basic though it is.
Like any jukebox musical, that plot exists as a vehicle to deliver the songs. So the challenge becomes whether the writer can make you care about the individuals who are going to sing these songs. And this is where the greatest virtue of Steinman’s music – its intensity – becomes its greatest liability. In emotional terms, Steinman’s songs are always turned up to 11. Whether it’s a power ballad like “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad” or an aderenalyzer like “Bat out of Hell,” that emotional intensity sucks the oxygen out of the room (or the car, depending on where you’re listening). You can handle it (and love it) for a while, but when it never lets up, it becomes exhausting. On stage, with the minimalist setup and the limited (sometimes silly) dialogue, you just don’t know enough – or care enough – about these people for the songs to be meaningful. Apart from Strat and Raven, there’s not enough story to earn these characters the right to the Steinmaneque intensity of these emotions. Whether it’s the Lost suddenly singing about their past in “Objects in the Rear View Mirror may Appear Closer than They Are” . . . or Zahara (Danielle Steers) and Jagwire (Billy Lewis Jr.) singing “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad,” it’s unsettling . . . because we don’t know enough about them even to keep their names straight.
So in graphic novel terms, Bat out of Hell The Musical is like what happens the first time an amazing artist — who has only ever drawn other writers’ stories — decides they will write and draw their own story. The graphic novel they create looks gorgeous. . . but as a story, it usually falls flat. It’s more like thumbing through the pages of an art book, as opposed to the experience of devouring an immersive, integrated story. To be fair, in Bat out of Hell The Musical there are tantalizing glimpses of a more interesting and arch aesthetic . For instance, an intriguing, over-the-top purple prose inflects the opening monologue’s explanation of Strat’s name, and then recurs in moments of his dialogue with Raven. The occasional use of a handheld microphone, concert-style, creates a curious distancing effect. And there are some moments of self-aware humour: most notably during “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” or when Strat feigns incredulity at Raven’s words during “I’d do Anything For Love (But I won’t do that)”. If more fully and coherently developed, these elements have the potential to bridge the story and character gaps with a unique kind of experience. But unfortunately, these are curiosities in the midst of the breathless and banal plot.
All that said, the audience – in particularly the middle-aged crowd who grew up with this music – really enjoyed themselves the night we saw the musical. They sang along, jumped to their feet for the reprise of “Bat out of Hell” at end, and left the theatre gushing about how good it was. But the real test of a musical is people who don’t know the music before the show, and aren’t projecting nostalgia onto it. Enter my teenage daughters. They arrived at the theatre with zero knowledge of the music (and ended up not caring for some of it). They found the almost-sex and pervasive sexual innuendo a bit embarrassing. And they felt the plot was confusing (especially the younger, who buried her head in her phone rather than The Obsidian Times in the ten minutes before the show). The elder identified specific performances she enjoyed (the two leads, and Sloane the mother) and praised the staging, even as she dissected the failings of its confusing plot and under-realized characters. As we walked down the street, she offered, by way of summary, “It’s good spectacle, just not a good musical.”
And that, I thought to myself, is a pretty solid encapsulation of this graphic novel-like experience. Bat out of Hell the Musical sounds great and looks great . . . but it’s a collection of staged songs and manufactured moments, not a meaningful story.
I suppose two out of three ain’t bad…
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What: Bat out of Hell The Musical, book, music and lyrics by Jim Steinman; direction by Jay Scheib; choreography by Emma Portner; musical arrangements and supervision by Michael Reed; set design by Jon Bausor; costume design by Meentje Nielsen & Jon Bausor; video design by Finn Ross; lighting design by Patrick Woodroffe; sound design by Gareth Owen; orchestration by Steve Sidwell; musical direction by Robert Emery
Who: Audiences 13 years (grade 9) and older
When: On stage until January 7, 2018 (matinee and evening performances); running time is 2 hours & 40 minutes (including intermission)
Where: Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria Street, Toronto, ON M5B 1V8
Info and Tickets: Mirvish.com and 416.872.1212
© 2017 Scott Sneddon, Sesaya