After a successful run of 'previews' in Manchester (reviewed here and here), Bat Out Of Hell has hit London's West End for a limited run at the home of the English National Opera, the London Coliseum. Somewhat appropriate given the monumental nature of Jim Steinman's epic masterwork.
Developed over several decades by Steinman from his musical The Dream Engine through the musical Neverland and beyond, the plot is essentially a rock and roll reworking of the Peter Pan story utilising many of Steinman's songs many of which were written with the Neverland project in mind. Indeed, Steinman composed so much material over the years that a number of songs don't feature in the musical at all given that several songs may cover the same scene or content and that there is limited time to squeeze them all in. One of the most obvious losses, and an odd one given the song's obvious subject matter, is that "Lost Boys And Golden Girls" fails to make an appearance. I can certainly think of a place for the number within the show as is, though there are still a massive number of songs peppered throughout the musical and every song from the first "Bat Out Of Hell" album makes an appearance in one form or another.
One of the clever aspects of the production is that there are numerous nods to Steinman and the earlier incarnations of the show; from the various lyrics sprawled across the walls to posters and signs to the very shirt that Strat (the Peter Pan of the story) wears - a picture of Jim Steinman himself from The Dream Engine in the role of Baal, the earliest incarnation of Strat.
It is the year 2100 and the island city of Obsidian (once known as Manhattan) is ruled by the tyrant Falco who is opposed by a group of mutants destined to never age beyond 18 called "The Lost". This group resides under the city, in The Deep End, and are led by Strat who has caught the eye of Falco's daughter, Raven. Repercussions follow when Strat elects to kidnap Raven from her isolation; repercussions from both Falco and from Strat's best friend, Tink, whose jealousy is multi-faceted given his own mutation came before puberty took hold. Falco also faces unrest from his unhappy wife, Sloane, as they both ache for the youth which is perpetual for "The Lost".
Steinman's book is relatively simple but there are interesting twists on various aspects of the Peter Pan story whilst the songs blend into the plot seamlessly (or intentionally not), which is no surprise given most were written for one incarnation of Neverland or another. The songs serve to reinforce emotional points and also to drive the plot onward. True, there are a few plot point which could be expanded upon but, given the nature of Steinman's overblown (in the best possible sense) creation, this is not essential; Steinman is retelling a fairy-tale through the medium of rock and roll and it works because of the faerie-tale nature of rock and roll itself. Furthering the powerful nature of the musical score is some beautiful and evocative underscoring which is haunting in itself.
The design of Jon Bausor is also perfectly attuned to Steinman's imagination, from the monumental set which includes dynamic filmic elements to Patrick Woodroffe's lighting design which perfectly walks the line between stadium and theatrical lighting. The projected film elements of Finn Ross also seamlessly tie in with the design and add to expansive nature of the show. The costumes have undergone great changes since the Manchester run (thankfully) and they now feel much more appropriate to the world of Obsidian.
It is easy to say that Bat Out Of Hell has easily become one of those productions where everything works in harmony to benefit the production, and this includes the intelligent direction of Jay Scheib whose experience in directing opera serves him exceedingly well here. Even the choreography of Emma Portner, which has received some harsh criticism, feels at home within the onstage world. It may be unconventional for musical theatre (but then there is a lot here that is unconventional) but it is cleverly used to convey the various unwritten stories of the (supporting) characters qualifying the often minimal dialogue and further adding to the depth and complexity of Steinman's universe.
The cast are uniformly excellent and perform with a gusto rarely seen, but with a theatrical sense that conveys the dramatic necessities of the various roles. Even the diction of the cast is crisp, with not a word mumbled or dropped. Each role is named and every cast member is distinctive, though there are primarily three couples whose adventures we follow: Jagwire (Dom Hartley-Harris) adores Zahara (Danielle Steers) but his love is unrequited, despite all the action the two evidently get up to. Both performers bring innate qualities to the parts with Jagwire both a strong and gentle persona whilst Steers' vocals are some of the most distinctive heard for many a year and her sass and inherent sexuality is marked well with every single step she takes. Falco (Rob Fowler) and Sloane (Sharon Sexton) each exhibit the tired energy of middle-aged parents lamenting the loss of the youth that their daughter possesses. Their chemistry and vocal compatibility is sizzling and, with an economy of words, they clearly delineate the decline of the older rocker in the face of ageing. Their 'resurrection' is all the more satisfying because of the powerhouse performances given.
The supporting ensemble, including Ledoux (Giovanni Spano) and Blake (Patrick Sullivan) lend varied emotional power to proceedings along with a variety of vocal tones not often seen in musicals, let alone rock ones. There are standout performances within the (dancing) ensemble also with Anthony Selwyn, Benjamin Purkiss (who also alternates the role of Strat at particular performances) and Olly Dobson among those whose individuality shines through. The character of Tink, as played by Aran MacRae, is the most obvious hold-over from the original J M Barrie tale and is translated here into a jealous and petulant teen whose childlike innocence is contrasted with his desire to be as 'adult' as the remainder of "The Lost". Raven (Christina Bennington) and Strat (Andrew Polec) are the focus of the show and the pair are delicately matched. With stirring vocals, vibrant physical presences and displaying the energising force of youth to the Nth degree, both possess the roles completely with Polec's contortions the embodiment of Steinman's rock sensibilities. It is understandable that script elements were excised when the cast (coupled with the direction and choreography) so readily portray the various dimensions of their characters with - seemingly - relatively little. And it is a credit to the creative team that the cast chosen is one imbued with a youthful spirit that matches their external projections, with vocal qualities that play against the typical 'musical theatre' - or even 'rock' - voices one usually expects on a stage (to the effect that the vocals are often indistinguishable from one performer to the next in a typical production) which further enhances the variations of life within the world of Obsidian. Here the characters are truly alive.
Taking the appropriate excesses of rock and stadium productions together with the nuances and theatricality of the most audacious elements of the stage, Bat Out Of Hell executes Jim Steinman's long-standing vision with a passion and verve not often seen. The cast meet every challenge and raise the bar for musical and vocal performances. The production values are a new high and exudes a force barely contained within the confines of a theatre auditorium. With flawless musical direction the songs are performed to the highest quality by a band (rock orchestra?) that sound as if they are having as much fun as the cast appear to be having onstage. That this musical has come to fruition is something of a miracle in itself in that much of it is more cinematic in scope than theatrical - and it would indeed make a fantastic movie musical given the right director, but it is a credit to theatre that it can and always will pull it out of the bag when required. And, though the production is massive in scope and execution, I have no doubt that a gifted director could make Steinman's material work in a smaller, less technical production (and let's face it - the size of this production means it will never tour in the conventional manner).
Bat Out Of Hell is a monumental, monolithic musical with a scale larger than anything recently conceived of for the musical stage. It is a thrilling joyride of fun, emotion, theatricality and damned great rock and roll! It is a sin that it is only running for a limited time in London before it crosses the Atlantic to hit Toronto. There are rumours that the producers are looking into bringing it back to London next year but either way I suggest you grab a ticket and have your mind blown by the most epic of productions you'll see in quite a while.
If you don't go over the top you can't see what's on the other side, as a great songwriter once said.