Great Lakes' production takes flight

Bat Boy: The Musical Through May 16 Great Lakes Theater Festival Hanna Theatre 2067 E. 14th St. 216.241.6000 Tickets: $15-$49

WHILE THE NATIONAL focus has been on transitory issues like health care and unemployment, the local buzz has centered on something far more significant: accusations that Great Lakes Theater Festival has betrayed the muses by abandoning its classical mandate.

This controversy has arisen over the company's production of Bat Boy: The Musical, which uses an infamous piece of yellow journalism about the discovery of half-man/half-bat creature. To paraphrase the great Groucho Marx, "We retaliate with horse feathers."

What this work amply demonstrates is that an evening of showbiz snap-crackle-pop will engender far more contented theater devotees than a pound of soggy Macbeths. Persistent rumor has it that this wink-laden spoof of B-movies, tabloids and other musicals is the intoxicated lark of boozing creators Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming and Laurence O'Keefe.

It is the archetype of a species of theater pieces that refuse to face life head on — a world filtered through satire. When the bat boy, in true My Fair Lady fashion, is transformed from squeaking part-rodent to Oxford scholar, the show reaches the smart-ass sheen of top-of-the-line Saturday Night Live.

O'Keefe's score has the pleasing bravado of good commercial jingles. The songs, which range from samba to rap, work well in the fractured context of the musical, but they would die of malnutrition removed from the glib buffoonery. The evening makes one yearn for spoofs of yore, like L'il Abner and Little Me, in which zaniness gives way to indelible melody.

If there's anything classic about Great Lakes' Bat Boy, it is the production values, which make splendid use of the renovated Hanna Theatre. Set designer Jeff Herrmann's pixilated view of a West Virginia full of prostrate cows wouldn't be inappropriate in an exhibition of Dali paintings. Diane Ferry Williams' rambunctious lighting effects are an art show unto themselves.

Director Victoria Bussert's penchant for playful theatrical raunch is perfectly mated to material that lives and dies by the chuckle. However, the element that truly underlines Great Lakes' devotion to past glories is the quicksilver choreography of Martin Cespedes. In the manner of the late American Dance Theatre, his work is a textbook of 20th-century dance styles. Cespedes uses everything from Fosse-style tangos to Pilobolus-like animal imagery. As always, his greatest talent is for taking a troupe of Shakespearean actors and transforming them into hoofers.

The cast takes antics that could easily grace the pages of Mad magazine and imbues them with Noel Coward-like élan. In the title role, Mitch McCarrell pulls off the feat of not only looking great in leather pants, but also bringing humanity and warmth to a cardboard joke.

If Great Lakes can render meringue with such flair, the company's revitalization will go well beyond the splendor of its new home at the restored Hanna.

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