At first glance, two new local productions appear to have little in common. Both stories are told primarily through music and each has a young male, one a humanoid creature drawn from tabloid news and the other all too tragically real, at its center. These would seem to be where the similarities between Bat Boy: The Musical and October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard end.
However, a timely common theme unites them. Bat Boy, which was an off-Broadway hit in 2001, depicts the conflicted reception a mutant receives from the generally loving family that takes him in and less-understanding townspeople after he is discovered by teenagers in a West Virginia cave. The young man (eventually christened Edgar) sports pointed ears and sharp teeth, which he uses to attack one of the teens in an act of self-defense.
Once captured, Edgar is taken to the home of Dr. Parker, the local veterinarian, and his wife and daughter. Things aren't as picture perfect in the Parker family as they seem to their neighbors. Mrs. Parker teaches Edgar to speak English (in a proper British accent courtesy of Masterpiece Theatre), Dr. Parker feeds his new "pet" a secret diet, and young Shelley falls in love with her new housemate. Meanwhile, the citizens of the aptly-named Hope Falls blame Edgar for a rash of cow deaths. Their intolerance and animosity reach a fever pitch when the girl attacked by Edgar dies.
Long Beach Playhouse's current production of Bat Boy had some problems during the preview performance I attended. Clearly written as a satire, director Andrew Vonderschmitt and his cast tended to play things too seriously and the tone was frequently off. There are elements of Greek tragedy in the show but they shouldn't be allowed to dominate. As a result, audience members laughed at the musical's more serious moments and didn't laugh at those more intentionally comedic.
A bigger issue still was that the cast's singing was too often off-pitch and dissonant. While some of the actors have better voices than others, it was obvious few of them were listening to one another. This also resulted in frequently unintelligible lyrics. Hopefully, all was corrected by opening night.
Truly impressive, though, in terms of both singing and acting is Bat Boy himself, Russell Malang. Born without forearms, Malang's physical appearance dramatically heightens his character's other-ness. This talented, seemingly fearless young man provides a significant reason to see the show even if its problems endure.
October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard commemorates the shocking murder of its subject 17 years ago this month. A powerful oratorio written by Leslea Newman and First Congregational Church of Long Beach's Curtis Heard, it will be re-presented at the Art Theatre on Sunday, October 25th following its smash opening weekend at First Congregational.
Shepard was a 21-year old student at the University of Wyoming in 1998. Openly gay but somewhat naïve, he was tricked by two local men who ended up robbing Shepard, beating him and leaving him tied to a fence on the remote outskirts of Laramie. He was discovered the next day by a police officer but never regained consciousness and died five days later. Shepard has been considered a martyr and hero by many people, both gay and straight, ever since.
October Mourning features lovely, deeply moving musical compositions performed by First Congregational's sanctuary choir, South Coast Chorale, a specially-assembled chamber orchestra and the Wilson High School Women's Chorus. The music is accompanied by evocative visual projections as well as solo singers and dramatic readings by several professional actors. It is a must-see/-hear production.
As far as our modern-day society has come in terms of acceptance and inclusion, intolerance driven by irrational fears sadly endures. Whether directed toward immigrants, LGBT people or other minorities, it holds us all back. May the arts continue to challenge us to overcome intolerance in our community.
For more information about Bat Boy: The Musical, visit Long Beach Playhouse website or call 562-494-1014 and for October Mourning visit the First Congressional Church of Long Beach website.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.