I love youth theatre, let’s start there. I, myself, worked on a summer teen musical program for a decade, coaching and mentoring young actors to explore life on the stage, so I was highly intrigued to check out a new youth theatre in Seattle with an interesting acronym: YETI. The Youth Experimental Theatre Institute was taking on a production of Bat Boy, The Musical, and that combo seemed like an interesting undertaking by young people, as the themes of this show are quite mature.
If you don’t know the show, the premise is based off a story from 1992 about a half bat/half human child who grew up in a cave. The musical, written by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, with music by Laurence O’Keefe takes the story to the small town of Hope Falls, West Virginia where the bat boy is found, taken in by the family of the town veterinarian and has the conflicting experience of being welcomed with open arms by the vet’s family and yet scorned and hated by the rest of the town to the point of being blamed for all that is wrong with their lives. This contradiction in existence is compounded by the fact that bat boy bit a local girl when she and her siblings cornered him in his cave and that the wife of the vet seems to love bat boy more than she loves her husband breeding hate and hostility from the only man who truly understands the needs of this boy.
It’s a complex story, that also includes the themes of discrimination, prejudice and accepting the ‘beast that lives inside of us all.’ It also brings into play majorly mature elements such as loss of virginity and rape (not in the same scene, thankfully), however, it is told with weak music, and an even weaker book. The writers attempt to mask these mature themes with humor, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. So with a less than stellar script and score, it would take a seriously strong production to make this show tolerable, let alone successful. And I would say YETI fell somewhere in between the two.
I understood what director Kyle Marshall was going for with his bare bones production. There was minimal set, basic costumes, and limited blocking and movement. He was clearly trying to put the audience’s focus on the actual story. This was not a successful choice when it came to the ensemble portion of the cast, as these kids were all varying levels of talent, especially vocal talent, so without strong design elements around them, it shone a spotlight onto the struggles of certain cast members and that was tough to watch.
However, Mr. Marshall’s concept did work well during scenes with bat boy, played by Will Hamilton, and the women in Dr. Parker’s (the vet) family. His wife, Meredith, played by Sarah Fairchild, and daughter, Shelley, played by Hannah Conradt, were able to really thrive in this type of minimalist production. The voices on all three of these performers were strong and stunning. Ms. Fairchild has one of the best young voices I’ve heard in a long time. And her line delivery and ability to take us on Mrs. Parker’s journey was refreshing and fantastic, given that she has some of the most ridiculous lines to say. From her bio, it appears she is a UW student, and as an alumni of the UW’s School of Drama, I have to say, she is doing my alma mater proud! Bravo!
Additionally, Ms. Conradt was adorable and vocally brilliant in this show. She is the innocence in the show, and her chemistry with Mr. Hamilton was lovely to see. She’s a very talented musician with strong acting chops. She is also credited as the costume designer, and I must say her simple costumes were spot on with Mr. Marshall’s direction concept and they worked brilliantly!
The star of this show was also my favorite performance of the night. Mr. Hamilton was absolutely delightful and heartbreaking as bat boy. His physicality and ability to stay in each moment as if it were the first time he experienced it showed a maturity in his craft that I wasn’t expecting from a recent high school graduate. I see he is attending Cornish in the fall, and they are lucky to have him! I can’t wait to see future performances from Mr. Hamilton, as based on this wonderful performance in a silly show that kept this judgmental reviewer both engaged and impressed, well, that’s rare, and you all know it! I expect to see great things from this young man! Well done, Sir!
For all of the success of Mr. Marshall’s direction, sadly there was as much failure with the music. Music direction by Alex Sanchez needed some serious tightening up. The program cited Mr. Sanchez as the keyboard player, and I’m wondering if there was someone new playing last night, because the keyboard was late and behind the singer on numerous occasions, making me wonder if it was his first night with the music. At two specific moments the actor just started singing a cappella, and from my seat, I could see the rest of the band staring at the keyboardist, silently urging him to start accompanying. And if this was Mr. Sanchez, well that is really quite disappointing as he’s the music director. It was distracting and frustrating for the audience. Can’t imagine how it was for the cast.
Additionally, the vocals of the cast were inconsistent and flat most of the time. Certain cast members were singing so loud, it messed up the arrangements of the group numbers, and others sang so softly during their solos that I couldn’t hear them from my back row seat. And that’s sad when there are only 4 rows of seats. Mr. Hamilton’s voice was quite raw and weak, telling me he’d pushed too hard during tech week, and other than a few ensemble members, most of the cast seemed unsure about the music. This was especially painful during certain rap-esque songs, as the cast member was off the music, and I honestly couldn’t tell you who was off (the singer or the band) because it was so messy.
I applaud young people wanting to make their own art. I encourage it and will support it, and I’m excited to have found YETI. Overall, I enjoyed this production, and enjoyed my experience with YETI. I would encourage the leadership of YETI, however, to seek out mentors for ambitious projects like this. Had there been a conductor for the band, it would have helped the issues a lot. Had there been a seasoned music director, he/she may have been able to teach the music to the cast more successfully, which would raise the production value of the show. If you’re going to do a musical, the music HAS to be good. Period.
Also, a more experienced director could have helped Mr. Marshall tighten up the inconsistencies in performances so that the entire cast gave strong performances, and not just his leads. And they may have also strongly suggested that the gender-flipping of certain characters wouldn’t work. The only place this worked was the character of Mrs. Taylor, played by Michael Lacker. That was a great choice by Mr. Marshall. But the others, no, they didn’t work well at all. I realize it’s the new hip thing to do/try in productions, but I wish Mr. Marshall had pulled back this idea, and streamlined it to only Mrs. Taylor. And lastly, the mature concepts of sex and rape were done innocently and tastefully, by Mr. Marshall. However, the impact of those scenes came off quite lame and weak, which was painful because the script around those moments calls for something with more of a punch, and I think working with an older director with more life and directing experience would have helped Mr. Marshall stretch his director’s eye a bit, as well as would have challenged his actors to create a stronger, more impactful moment of truth for the story. The same is true for the fight choreography in the show. Just needs stronger knowledge behind those moments to help bring them to life more successfully.
Overall, these kids should be proud of themselves for a fun production, and hopefully learn from the things that didn’t quite work to make their next endeavor that much more successful. YETI’s Bat Boy, the Musical only plays this weekend, closing on Sunday. Show and ticket information can be found on their website.
This one gets a quick applause, and then head to the bar for a drink.
Ciao for now,
Photos from YETI’s website and Facebook Page