- Chris O'Rourke
Bat Out of Hell: The Musical
Glenn Adamson and Martha Kirby in Bat Out of Hell: The Musical. Image Chris Davis Studio.
When The Shangri-Las incorporated the sound of a motorbike into their 1965 teen classic, Leader of the Pack, it became, and remains, one of the coolest songs ever. Heavily inspired by Leader of the Pack, Jim Steinman's 1977 rock opera album, Bat Out of Hell, steeped in 50s retro, borrowed their bike, their heavy piano scoring, and conversational dialogue to create what was, and remains, another of the coolest things ever. This time on a far bigger scale. Yet if musically big, Bat Out of Hell was small in themes, focusing on teenage sex, unrequited love, and passions looking to break free. And break free it did, taking audiences straight to heaven. Helped by the impeccable production of Todd Rundgren and the legend that is Meat Loaf. Now, forty-five years on, Bat Out of Hell: The Musical arrives in Dublin. First premiered in 2017, this loving homage to the recently deceased Steinman and Meat Loaf lets us hear their songs live once more. Even so, despite some revved up excitement, this is an engine that frequently coughs and sputters, looking in desperate need of a tune up.
Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton in Bat Out of Hell: The Musical. Image Chris Davis Studio.
In 1977 Steinman and Meat Loaf produced a rock opera based on Peter Pan, Neverland, from which some songs from Bat Out of Hell eventually arose. On the evidence of Steinman's book for the musical (with additional material by Stuart Beattie), they were wise to abandon it. Indeed, if Steinman’s current script can be called a book, Ross O'Carroll Kelly deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature. In truth, it's best to ignore the story. You won't miss much, just a badly written derivation of Peter Pan used to unconvincingly wedge some classic Steinman songs into. Don't believe me? Peter (called Strat) can't grow old. A teenage, mutant, ninja-like being, he hides with the rest of The Lost down a subway. From where his youthful antics strike terror into the heart of the villainous Falco (read Captain Hook). Sprinkling in a dash of Romeo and Juliet, Strat falls for Falco's daughter, Raven (a good girl wanting to be a bad Wendy), who joins his sexually diverse crew, including a heart broken Tink. The rest, like the six month leap in time that's never explored or explained, isn't worth telling. If Steinman wasn't bothered, why should anyone else?
Martha Kirby in Bat Out of Hell: The Musical. Image Chris Davis Studio.
Part of the problem lies with its central characters. If Steinman's Peter is forever young, he's an irritating idiot. Glenn Adamson's invested Strat, like Iggy Pop's surfer brother trying to channel Jim Morrison, lacks some crucial brain cells and should seriously consider upping his anti-psychotic meds. Martha Kirby's committed Raven, exuding as much personality as a moaning mop, whines about how she was born to be wild with the fury of an annoyingly spoiled brat. Neither being as wild nor as much fun as Mum, Sloane, and Dad, Falco. A divine Sharon Sexton looking like a legend in the making as the drunken Sloane, a lost soul who periodically surfaces from her bottomless glass. Rob Fowler brilliant as the overprotective Falco, oozing charisma and a commanding presence. Sloane and Falco the scene stealing life and soul of the show. Even their botched sex looks more fun than the Emo posing of the central lovers. And their adult duets strike real emotional chords.
Sharon Sexton in Bat Out of Hell: The Musical. Image Chris Davis Studio.
At his best Steinman grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and set your heart racing. Here, an unforgivable cynicism infects the production. Including some lacklustre and unspectacular choreography adapted by Xena Gusthart. Showing the directorial acumen of Ed Wood, Jay Scheib has the whole looking frantic and cramped, with some ingenious moments, like the brilliant orchestra pit joke, holding him to account. Meentje Nielsen's costumes are also a car crash, suggesting thug extras from Deathwish moonlighting in a Pat Benatar video. Leaving you hoping Charles Bronson might emerge with a fully loaded Magnum. Framed in clever camera play, great lighting and a clever set might help keep things energised, but mostly it conceals a multitude of sins. Including a performative lack of imagination. Forced, dramatically and theatrically, like a motorbike with the horsepower of a zimmer frame, it soon starts to look shoddy. If music redeems it somewhat, one out of three ain't good enough.
Bat Out of Hell: The Musical. Image Chris Davis Studio.
Music, for all its strengths, isn't without its issues. While it would be unfair to make vocal comparisons with Meat Loaf, Cher, Bonnie Tyler or Fire Inc, Steinman's songs do require a kind of largesse. It's here, on occasion, just not consistently. Compounded by singers not always complementing each other vocally. Adamson's Strat and Kirby's Raven might make sweet love, but they don't always make sweet music. Looking like they're trying to conserve their energy we often get nice singing, some not quite landing, and not enough soaring Steinman. Not so with Fowler and Sexton who kick the doors down vocally and theatrically. If Falco and Sloane are everything wrong in the show, Fowler and Sexton are everything you do right in a musical, towering head and shoulders above everyone else onstage.
Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf. Image uncredited.
Like rock opera, the modern, sexually literate young have moved on to other things, some of which is tokenly touched on. Making groping guiltily by the dashboard light sound sleazy rather than sexy. Indeed, Hollywood once made B movies, later known as movies that went straight to DVD. Bat Out of Hell: The Musical is a musical theatre equivalent. Everything Bat Out of Hell the album is, Bat Out of Hell: The Musical isn't. But Steinman's songs still have the power to move. Even if, despite referencing a wide range of albums, the show doesn't do full homage to Steinman. Omitting anthemic classics like Nowhere Fast and Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young from the 1984 cult classic movie, Streets of Fire. If we're describing Bat Out of Hell: The Musical in terms of what it isn't, well it isn't for everybody. But devotees wanting to hear Steinman classics belted out large are in for a treat. The big finale sending you home singing. Just remember to keep an eye out for those sudden curves.
Bat Out of Hell: The Musical, music, lyrics and book by Jim Steinman, presented by Michael Cohl, Tony Smith and David Sonenberg, runs at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until September 10.
For more information visit Bord Gáis Energy Theatre