Monday, September 15, 2003

Bat Boy (Shannon Loo) dines on a cow's head in "Bat Boy: The Musical" at Manoa Valley Theatre.

MVT's dark tabloid tale
is a quirky comic gem

All too many contemporary comedies -- national hits as well as the efforts of local playwrights -- are constructed using such predictable templates that much of the "comedy" is strictly formula stuff. Manoa Valley Theatre's season-opening production of "Bat Boy: The Musical" is something else entirely. Nothing feels forced and very little is predictable. "Bat Boy: The Musical" is an unpretentious little gem of a show in all respects.

"Bat Boy: The Musical" continues at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at Manoa Valley Theatre. Tickets are $30 (with discounts for seniors, military and those under age 26). Call 988-6131.

The story was inspired by tabloid press accounts of the life and times of a creature whose existence has been breathlessly "documented" in the Weekly World News for more than a decade, but playwrights Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming follow a more conventional trajectory with a story that neatly blends elements of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," MAD magazine, "Stranger in a Strange Land," classic sci-fi horror films and Meatloaf's magnum opus, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."

Scott Rogers directs the dark yet comic action perfectly. He has also assembled a superb constellation of actors in the four lead roles. Shannon Kaleo Loo stars as the titular bat boy -- Edgar -- who is captured in a mountain cave and turned over to the local veterinarian.

The vet, Thomas Parker, is estranged from his wife, Meredith. She begs him not to kill the creature, and he agrees after she reluctantly consents to "be a wife" to him.

Parker joins his wife and their daughter, Shelley, in giving Edgar a crash course in contemporary American culture. Within days, Edgar earns his GED. Then a revival show comes to town, and Edgar seeks to complete his evolution from "animal" to "human" by receiving salvation in Christ.

However, despite Edgar's desire to fit in, when cattle in the area are found dead, the townsfolk blame the "bat boy."

Loo is convincing in the title role. He uses body language and movement to indicate the cave-dwelling creature's evolution as he learns to speak and then acquires human manners and behavior. Loo also succeeds in making Edgar an appealing romantic lead.

Kevin Yamada (Dr. Parker) gives a dynamic, multifaceted performance -- actor, singer and dancer -- as the vet. Yamada's comic timing has never been sharper, and comic lines have rarely been tossed off more effectively in local theater that Yamada does here.

Karen I. Valasek (Meredith) is equally engaging. She puts a delicious spin on some of the pithiest one-liners. Valasek's skill as a comic actor and physical comedienne is matched by her vocal talent.

Sherry Chock Wong (Shelley) is absolutely adorable as the hapless daughter. In the early scenes she plays Shelley in the style of a late-'50s teen sitcom star to good effect. Then Wong adjusts her performance to reveal Shelley's emotional growth. It's no surprise that Wong sings beautifully, but her acting talent has never been more evident.

Two other notable performers give stellar supporting performances: Joey Caldarone in two great comic roles (one of them male, one female) and Michael Ng, who personifies aggression with his portrayal of Shelley's belligerent boyfriend, who taunts and teases the caged bat boy.

Katherine L. Jones (choreography) and Keith Griffin (musical director) share credit for musical numbers that are as entertaining as the comic dialogue. Jones' choreography of "Show You a Thing or Two" featuring Loo, Valasek, Wong and Yamada is particularly well done, but there are several other places in which music, dance and characterization mesh perfectly.

Karen Archibald (sets and special effects) and Lloyd S. Riford III (sets and lighting) open the show by having three teens rappel into an eerie cave, and maintain a similar dark and ominous ambience in several key scenes thereafter.

Without spoiling the story by revealing any of the surprises, suffice it to say that "Bat Boy: The Musical" is a something almost as rare as the "real life" bat boy himself: a perfect little modern comedy.

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