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FRT sinks its teeth into Batboy

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It's difficult, if not impossible, to retain affection for a character after he uses the word "indubitably," as a punchline. But if the writers and directors of Batboy: The Musical can cram pointy-eared creatures of the night, inter-species orgies, papier-mâché cow heads, questions of moral relativity and sentience versus soul into a play inspired by a Weekly World News story from the '90s, all while somehow busting out with a musical number every three minutes, anything is possible.

The pulpy lunacy of Batboy's plot requires commitment from both the actors and the audience. In short: Three West Virginia teenagers discover a freakish bat-human hybrid deep in a cave, the creature bonds with and is de-feralized by a veterinarian's family, then proceeds to question his origins, purpose and place in the world. Meanwhile, townsfolk eye the new arrival with suspicion, even after his My Fair Lady-esque makeover, and tragedy — writ large, campy and gruesome — is inevitable.

Despite his false pointy teeth, Joey Lawrence, playing the eponymous Batboy, has perhaps the crispest diction of the cast. This goes a long way toward helping one forgive the aforementioned dialogue, as does his impressive physicality (even as the lights are out and performers are taking their marks you can watch his silhouette retain its twisty chiropteran creep.) Lawrence's role requires a great deal of gymnastics: leaping, climbing, hanging upside down. Even when he's trapped in a burlap bag and other characters are singing a duet next to his writhing form, he manages to steal the scene.

The vocal talent in Batboy is a bit uneven, and occasionally the live band performing above the stage overpowers the weaker singers, but when performers nail a song, they really nail it. David Powell, playing the oft-drunk veterinarian Dr. Parker, stands out in particular. He recently returned to us after performing with the New York Lyric Opera. Repertory regulars may also recognize Alexandra D. Blouin, as Meredith Parker, for her robust performance as the German Gretchen in last fall's Boeing Boeing. Blouin's scenes with Lawrence, in which she coaches the batboy into proper speech and short pants, are largely delightful.

Leaning on an audience to fill aural space during scenes like Batboy's church revival is risky business, but in this case it was an easy coercion. Within minutes of the lights dimming for the second act, the entire theater was clapping along as Ruben Botello's Reverend Billy Hightower led the audience in praise. Botello seems to find his niche with broad comedy, doubling in drag as a distressed mother who wields a handbag to great effect. Bohdan Banducci also takes on a few roles, slipping easily into a tweed skirt set and wig to morph from raunchy teenage boy to town scold (yet more handbag wielding). Like Lawrence, he does an excellent job of staying animated even when not blessed with lines of his own, and it's easy to laugh along with his rubber-faced mugging.

There are some shortcomings in the script that even the most talented of actors can't act around, like the uneven development of some parallel plots. Batboy would also benefit from the amputation of three to four of its weepier songs but, really, what musical wouldn't? Ultimately, no sin of plot nor vocal range lingers long enough to leave a bad taste in one's mouth. Note by note and plot twist by plot twist, the whole production teeters onward at an almost-unsafe speed, threatening to crash due to its reckless load of camp. But by its final denouement, when Batboy's true origins are revealed, the audience is on board and willing to round out some false notes with its own exuberant voice.

Bat Boy: the Musical plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m through May 7. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.

Upcoming

A woman who lost her son to AIDS visits her son's former partner, now married with a son of his own in Mothers and Sons at Redwood Curtain Theatre. The Terrance McNally play runs April 12 through May 8. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.

Bring tissues to Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre when second-year MFA students present their original tragedy Queens of the Sons of Exile from April 21-24. Call 669-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.

How can picking up a call meant for the deceased turn into a comedy/love story? You'll have to see Dead Man's Cell Phone at Humboldt State University's Gist Hall to find out. Michael Thomas directs the play by Sarah Ruhl, which runs from April 22 through May 1. Visit www.hsustage.blogspot.com.

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