BAT OUT OF HELL — The Musical, London Show
When baby boomers imagine a dystopian future it is always populated by criminal gangs — they’re almost always bikers — almost always white [even though whites make up only 13% of gang culture] and these gangs are set against a murderous and formidable bureaucrat.
Why would any future — a future set in the twenty-second century, for example — have greasy rock ‘n’ roll dudes riding Harley-Davidson choppers causing upheavals in run-down neighbourhoods little changed from the Upper West Side quarter of the mid-1950’s — as depicted by Jerome Robbins?
My theory is that the Jets and the Sharks of the West Side Story and those free-wheeling hippies from Fonda/Hopper’s Easy Rider were such overwhelming, generational game-changers and future-indicators — so shocking to white, mild, middle-class audiences — that we still feel the resonance of their cultural waves today.
And let’s be honest, Jim Steinman constantly finds himself influenced by what he describes as “rural suburban teenage angst” and is said to write songs around the song-titles he haphazardly comes up with. Both truisms are obvious in the new Bat Out of Hell Musical, premiered at the Manchester Opera House in Spring 2017 and seen by us at the London Coliseum, home of the English National Opera, on 6th June 2017.
Opera ought to be dramatic, colourful, emotional and zealous. And this show is certainly all these things. It’s not an opera though [no recitative, which is just lazy.] It’s merely another jukebox musical. If Steinman had really wanted to create a masterpiece, he should have gone the whole hog and written this as a grand opera… but he wimped out and instead what we have here is a regurgitation of songs originally composed around 1974–1977. Incidentally, when he wrote these tunes in the mid-seventies, a dystopian future probably did look like a bunch of easy-riders resisting the oppression of “The Man.”
So, in the London show, we have a gang of bikers who have been amazingly astute in keeping their hogs in pristine running condition for over 200 years. They live underground in a community setting much like that seen in HAIR the musical, and below a familiar Orwellian world that oversees things with a heavy-handed police. The bikers have been cursed, if that is the right word, with immortality… they never age beyond eighteen.
The ‘Man’ in this scenario runs a kind of Globalsoft Corporation and has an 18-year-old daughter, his most treasured possession. He keeps her locked in a prison-cell cum luxury apartment. All she can do is look out the window at the sky and the sea. All she wants to do, though, is go down into the sewers and run with the kids.
And even though her overly protective parents have practically imprisoned her, it seems that various villainous characters are free to come and go — the most important of these is the Peter Pan character named Strat.
The biker gang is, of course, plagued with those bubbling I’m-so-misunderstood feelings. Petty frustrations and anxiety’s that almost always seem over-exaggerated from an adult point-of-view yet are life-and-death for teenagers. And conversely, or maybe not, we get the company mandarin who resides in his ivory tower and looks down upon the masses. And wherein lies the power?
An epic work does not necessarily have to be heroic or great. But it must be long. And the extraordinarily lengthy mini-operettas written by Jim Steinman certainly deliver in this regard. Epic is the word most used to describe his popular songs. Each title is infused with its own sense of direction and purpose, though not necessarily its own identity… the songs belong to a family of repeated phrases and sound sequences… often the melodic ideas overlap and extend from one song to another creating a bewildering experience.
So, in this show, we get rhetoric-filled bombast in profusion. You want a flowery eulogy about female virginity? You got it: “All Revved Up with No Place to Go.”
You want an incredibly powerful song about making love choices? You got it: “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” — with its prototypical American-flavoured lyrics that seem lost in ironic 1970’s kitsch: “There ain’t no Coupe de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box….”
In the first slice of the show we had the visually stunning three-part set-piece “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” that included the “baseball play-by-play” section… stopping “right there” at the squeeze play with Falco [Rob Fowler] and Sloane [Sharon Sexton] — both star performers — who relive their teenage love. With this aria we get some sense of the ‘loss’ experienced by adults as they approach middle-age.
By the way, this scene had quite possibly the most exciting visual climax ever witnessed on stage. I won’t reveal it, you’ll need to see it for yourself. It’s a stunner.
The stage production and especially the effects, the lighting and video photography were of the highest possible quality. And the choreography was first-class too. When we saw the show, the under-study Ben Purkiss took the lead role of Strat. And we thought his voice sounded limp and whiny. And that’s a shame because his co-stars , especially the talented Christina Bennington as Raven, were on tip-top form.
For us the most memorable moments were the Motownish “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” — which was the first ever Meat Loaf single, and the über-ambitious “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer than They Are”.
We also loved the repeated theme found in “For Crying Out Loud” while the romantic duet “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” more-or-less summed up the entire show.
Not quite an opera, not quite a musical, this straddled the line between two genres.
It’s a show about social stratification and the loss of innocence and youth. Perhaps some of the ideas were over-emotional and sentimental rather than ironic — but isn’t that what we love about Steinman? He’s the true master of mush.
After a short run in London, the show will go to Toronto — Ed Mirvish Theatre — in October.