When I took my seat at Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell at City Center last week, there was already a buzz of excitement in the air just before the lights went down, like before a rock concert. Everything hushed for a moment and then exploded: Meat Loaf had entered the building. Mr. Marvin Lee Aday, better known by his beefy appellation, had come to see the show for the first time in New York City. BOOH is an extravaganza based on the three albums he made with Steinman, 1977’s Bat Out of Hell, 1993’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell, and 2006’s Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose. His entrance recalled Gene Wilder’s initial appearance in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as the seventy-one-year-old Meat Loaf, who has multiple health issues, moved very slowly, relying on a cane to walk. Fans congregated around him for selfies anyway, but eventually darkness came and the show went on. It was more fun watching Meat Loaf himself taking his seat; you can throw just about anything you want into a meatloaf and still end up with a satisfying dish, but you can’t do that with a fully fledged musical that’s charging up to $225 a ticket.
Bat Out of Hell: The Musical is fifty years in the making, beginning with Steinman’s Brecht-inspired Baal in 1968 and his Peter Pan-influenced Neverland in 1977. This final version debuted in February 2017 at the Manchester Opera House and has been touring the world; it continues at City Center through September 8, but I can’t recommend you get tickets as soon as possible because the show is an absolute mess, nay, a nearly complete disaster, starting with the opening piece, “Love and Death and an American Guitar,” a two-character narration that just might be the worst first few minutes of a major musical I have ever seen. For the next two and a half hours, things occasionally got better — there are even a few dazzling highlights — as Steinman and director Jay Scheib evoke such wide-ranging shows and movies as Grease, The Warriors, Romeo & Juliet, Mad Max, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Godspell, and Peter Pan, all of which are far superior to this head-scratchingly bizarre weirdness that is all revved up with no place to go.
The story takes place in 2030 in a postapocalyptic Manhattan, now known as Obsidian, that has been drifting out at sea after an unnamed “cataclysmic event.” The city is run with an iron fist by Falco (Bradley Dean), whose wife, Sloane (Tony winner Lena Hall), is bored and drinks too much; their daughter, Raven (Christina Bennington), wants to break out of her sheltered, pampered existence as she turns eighteen. For no apparent reason, she falls in love with Strat (Andrew Polec), the ersatz leader of a group of homeless kids known as the Lost, living under the ruins of the American Museum of Natural History, by an abandoned tunnel and skeevy bar called the Deep End. (Much of that information comes from perusing the actual script; the details are nowhere to be found onstage.) The headstrong Falco is ready to do everything in his power to keep Strat and Raven apart, including using the military force of his armed units. The cataclysm has frozen the disenchanted youths in time; the Lost are all eighteen years old, condemned never to grow into adulthood. “To be forever eighteen and irresponsible? It’d be fucking great,” Sloane tells Raven. Except maybe not.
Among the other members of the Lost are Strat’s right-hand man, Jagwire (Tyrick Wiltez Jones), who has the hots for the bold Zahara (Danielle Steers); the trio of Ledoux (Billy Lewis Jr.), Valkyrie (Jessica Jaunich), and Kwaidan (Kayla Cyphers), who occasionally find themselves front and center; and Tink (Avionce Hoyles), a fairy-like character (think Tinker Bell) who also is in love with Strat and who resents being frozen several years before he turned eighteen, so everyone treats him like a little kid. The dilapidated set, by costume designer Jon Bausor, features a slanted glass high-rise where Falco, Sloane, and Raven live; we can often see inside Raven’s window as she writes in a notebook or fights with her parents. Those scenes are usually accompanied by a videographer who films what is happening, which is annoyingly and confusingly live-streamed on a far wall. (The video design is by the usually inventive and dependable Finn Ross.)
The music, for the most part, is fine; musical director Ryan Cantwell and orchestrator Steve Sidwell don’t futz around too much with the original arrangements, and the pit band, comprising three keyboardists, two guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, and a percussionist, does justice to such songs as “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” (sung beautifully by Jones and Steers), “Heaven Can Wait,” the poignant ensemble piece “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are,” “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night),” “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” and “Bat Out of Hell,” but Xena Gusthart’s choreography is baffling when it isn’t downright, er, batty. If you do choose to see the show, don’t miss the inexplicable movements of what appears to be a group of pansexual Oompa Loompas during a wild version of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” manically performed in flashback by Dean and Hall. And if you’re wondering how Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” ended up here, it’s because Steinman wrote it for Meat Loaf, who turned it down for financial reasons.
While there are some fine ingredients — Bennington, Hall, Jones, and Steers are standouts — the result is significantly less than savory. Fortunately, the night I went, Meat Loaf eventually stored away his cane and joined the cast for an encore of “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)”; he might not be in top form, but he is a force of nature, one of the most charismatic, magnetic characters ever to grab a mic, and it was a thrill to see him onstage again, even after the cataclysmic disaster that preceded him, leaving us with an ultracool dessert to finish off an otherwise dreadfully disappointing meal.
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