A tabloid-inspired musical comedy finally takes wing in Chicago in a strong Griffin Theatre production.
When I was in high school, my friends and I used to occasionally buy the tabloid Weekly World News at the grocery store. Whereas the Enquirer and other, trashier celebrity tabloids used real-life famous people as the characters in their tawdry stories (what we might today term nonfanfic), the Florida-based WWN made up its screaming headlines about alien invasions, DaVinci Code–like religious discoveries and superpowered babies out of whole cloth, for the most part. Those who only glanced at the salacious covers didn't know the extent to which the paper's writers took these ridiculous conceits. With The Onion yet to reach my hometown, the Weekly World News served a somewhat similar purpose for us.
Like The Onion eventually did, Weekly World News mined some of its best material from recurring characters. And what "Diamond" Joe Biden is for The Onion today, Bat Boy was for WWN's heyday, turning into a sort of mascot. A hybrid half-bat, half-boy—it was what it said on the tin—purportedly discovered in a cave by spelunkers, Bat Boy became the inspiration for this satirical musical, which premiered in 1997 in Los Angeles—five years after Bat Boy's first Weekly World News cover—but has somehow taken nearly 20 years to reach a Chicago premiere.
The tongue-in-cheek material is in fairly solid hands with director Scott Weinstein (a newly minted Jeff winner for Theo Ubique's Rent) and a solid set of lead actors. Henry McGinniss is a screeching delight in the title role, evolving from feral to erudite in the course of a few scenes but unable to tamp down his true nature. With a pair of remarkably steadfast prosthetic ears and a deft physicality, McGinniss wins us over to Bat Boy's side in no time. Anne Sheridan Smith provides valuable pathos as his adoptive mother, and Tiffany Tatreau (so great in last fall's Ride the Cyclone at Chicago Shakespeare Theater) gets in some delicious moments as Bat Boy's adoptive-sister-cum-love-interest.
Weinstein's physical staging can be a little busy—there's a lot of furniture-moving going on—and his supporting cast can edge too broad. Much of the baked-in comedy in the script involves a too-small cast doubling or tripling characters on the fly, yes. But part of what made the Weekly World News work so well was its commitment to the utter veracity of its stories. Griffin's Bat Boy generally stops short—but just short—of veering too far into loud and silly. If the cast keeps to a steady flight path, all should be clear.
Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre. Story and book by Keythe Farley & Brian Flemming. Music & lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe. Directed by Scott Weinstein. With Henry McGinniss, Tiffany Tatreau, Anne Sheridan Smith, Matt W. Miles. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.