Tuesday, 28 March 2017

"Jim Steinman's Bat Out Of Hell - The Musical", Opera House, Manchester, 24/3/17

Awesome. Emotional. Epic. Exhilarating. Gut-busting. Intense. Monumental. Powerful. Rocking. Stunning. Wagnerian.

Perfectly synthesising varied elements ranging from the graphic novel to the rock concert Jim Steinman's apocalyptic rock retelling of the Peter Pan story finally bursts onto the stage in a production that manages to equal the audacity of Steinman's songwriting more than 40 years since the project was initiated as the musical The Dream Engine and its revision Neverland, spawning the Bat Out Of Hell album and influencing virtually everything Steinman has since written.
Though it is termed a 'musical' Bat Out Of Hell really is more akin to an opera, both in writing and execution and only as an opera can the audacious nature of the work be granted full release so that it is able to achieve its potential success. Yes, 'musical' is a more marketable, more commercial term but Bat Out Of Hell is really a modern opera. As it should be:
In the year 2100 the city of Obsidian (formerly Manhattan) is ruled over by Falco who keeps his daughter Raven a virtual prisoner in his tower home, along with his wife, Sloane. Under the city live The Lost, a tribe of mutants whose genes ensure they never age beyond the age of 18. Their leader is Strat who falls for Raven when he first sets eyes on her. The feeling is reciprocated and Raven makes her escape as soon as she can, enraging Falco as well as Strat's best friend, Tink, a fellow Lost Boy who is unique in that his genes make him younger than all the others to the point that where others may ride motorcycles, Tink has to rely on his bicycle. Tink's uniqueness also means that he is never able to fulfil his sexual desires, primarily aimed at Strat, which leads to his growing jealousy toward his idol. The teenage sexual angst drives the various strands of the plot, even where that angst is jealously longed for by Falco, eager to recapture the passion that youth promised.

Steinman's libretto is somewhat rudimentary and reliant on his penchant for a unique turn of phrase but this actually works in favour of the production helping to establish the world and its language whilst harking back to the fairy-tale nature of the source material: basic, but detailed when required. It's also laced with humour and pathos and has its surprisingly moving moments.
The arrangements by Steve Sidwell and Michael Reed of Steinman's songs are excellently executed and the orchestrations have a variety about them that maintains a consistent feel within the nature of the production. Indeed some arrangements are downright stunningly haunting (Heaven Can Wait for one). Robert Emery's musical direction is well judged and Gareth Owen's sound design serves Steinman's songs well, though sometimes the numerous speakers  seem barely able to contain them. The use of the songs throughout the libretto are perfectly attuned to the necessary plot elements, elaborating plot details and/or character emotion and none seem superfluous; even Dead Ringer For Love serves a purpose within the subplot between Zahara and Jagwire. Steinman's lyrics also feel perfectly at home on the grand musical stage and any minor tweaks he has made work for the better.

The set design by Jon Bausor is rich in theatrical/cinematic fluidity and it metamorphoses succinctly between numerous locations and the integration of Finn Ross' video projection and Patrick Woodroffe's awesome lighting is uniquely congruent. There are numerous references to various Steinman lyrics and projects within the set design, from the Bad For Good album artwork on Raven's bedroom wall (she oft quotes the opening lines of the title song of that album) to the Life Is A Lemon graffiti adorning some of the geological rock elements of the set. The costumes by Meentje Nielson equally establish a world of the future that echoes the past whilst retaining comedic elements as is true throughout the production.
The synergy created between the design elements and the vision of the musical's director, Jay Scheib, ultimately shaping Steinman's dream, is such that the images and happenings onstage are exhilarating and surprising, generating diverse environments and energies making the theatrical experience a cinematic one and it is a testament to the production and its direction that what is witnessed is so kinetic that it sweeps the audience along, no doubt aided by a design which encroaches into the auditorium, drawing them into the onstage world completely.
The pacing, the mood, the tension and the emotional impact are almost universally exquisitely executed by Scheib who utilises the music, the lyrics and the dialogue to exacting precision. That he is versed in directing opera is a boon to the production with the opera staging style well integrated into the more usual form of musical theatre directing, never glaringly obvious but perfectly natural to the epic, over-the-top nature of Steinman's material.
Emma Portner's choreography is distinct and sometimes akin to that that may be seen in a Steinman music video; indeed its use is occasionally to the same end, as the dance is not always essential to the plot, but rather it is a visual element since the dancers are not really part of a scene, but even then it is unusual in that they never distract from the lead characters whose song or scene it may be and who always retain the audience's attention. In other sequences, though, the dancers are an essential element and are often used as a storytelling device, simultaneously providing the backing vocals to create the Steinman sound. The performers' energy and enthusiasm is never waning and their stamina is noteworthy.

Of course, the production isn't perfect; the opening medley of songs could be trimmed further and the subplot of Tink's love and friendship of Strat could be established earlier and more successfully to make what happens later more profound, as could the relationship between Zahara and Jagwire which needs a little more elaborating to make her falling for him (after confessing she loves someone else) more believable. More time also needs to be taken between Strat and Raven's separation and reunion which, at present, passes in the blink of an eye; perhaps here would be a more suitable use of the song It Just Won't Quit or even the song The Future Ain't What It Used To Be. Likewise the final resolutions could be more established to create a more concrete finale. Were I to be even more critical then I'd point out that the 'California' reference in For Crying Out Loud may need altering if it is a literal lyric as the city of Obsidian is indicated to be the former Manhattan whereas, in the original Neverland, it was actually in California, which would make the lyric appropriate. That said the lyric can be an abstract, wishful reference and is such a small quibble that it is almost irrelevant.
Of course, given the amount of material Steinman has written over the years it's impossible for a stage production to feature every song (or song extract) heard on any of the Bat Out Of Hell albums without the production running for less than four hours (don't worry, it doesn't - it currently runs just over two and half hours) and there will inevitably be one or two numbers omitted that Steinman and Meat Loaf fans will lament the loss of; Lost Boys And Golden Girls is just one of the songs that you won't hear in the stage show, but there are plenty of numbers to satiate any die-hard fan. That said, if any further revisions happen (perhaps to rectify any of the points illustrated above) then I can certainly see a use for some of the omitted album tracks, or even extracts from them, such as using the bridge (and perhaps more) from Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere) in place of the current position of It Just Won't Quit which would facilitate the latter song's re-use as I describe above. But these are decisions for the creative team to make.

The casting as almost uniformly excellent with the company blessed with truly outstanding credible rock voices and a physicality that exudes the youthful energies and drives that Steinman captures so well.
Andrew Polec as Strat is a dynamo and his lean, youthful looks and big voice perfectly capture the figure of permanent youth and sexual energy as any alter-ego of Jim Steinman should. He rises well above the challenges that he faces in the role and he leads from the front giving a truly spellbinding performance.
Christina Bennington's Raven is a full-throated, raging, vivacious teenager, rebelling against her parents blessed with a powerful voice and beautiful stage presence.
As Tink Aran MacRae is a delicate creature whose tender voice and charisma beautifully captures the tragedy of the character, caught in a world in which he can never really participate.
The sexually charged Sloane is portrayed with scintillatingly by Sharon Sexton who has ample opportunity to let her vigorous vocals shine, especially in the incredibly staged Paradise By The Dashboard Light which she shares with the prowling, masculine Falco of Rob Fowler whose aching need to recapture his youth, whilst restraining his own daughter's, is elegantly performed by an actor whose vocal qualities are perfectly suited to Steinman's work. 
Whilst still pleasant to hear, it's unfortunate that Dom Hartley-Harris' vocal range means he isn't quite on par with his fellow singers in handling the demanding ranges of Steinman's songs - he chooses to sing lower harmony lines at times - and he sometimes appears ill-at-ease onstage whilst the connection and his charisma is somewhat lacking in the relationship with Danielle Steers' dynamic and thrilling Zahara whose voice is one of the most unique and memorable. Steers is a powerful force on the stage and one of the most mesmeric performers of recent years. Indeed there is quite a large number of incredible performers gracing the stage in Bat Out Of Hell.
Not to take anything away from otherwise rousing performances but there are also, sadly, one or two members of The Lost - Giovanni Spano being one - who appear physically too old (at least as they appear in character onstage) to credibly play a 'frozen' - never appearing to age beyond 18 - but as these are seldom centre of attention this incongruousness is often dismissed.
The powerful voices and physicality that Bat Out Of Hell demands - and requires - is in plentiful abundance in this production and they, for the most part, serve Jim Steinman excellently.

Bat Out Of Hell is perhaps the ultimate rock musical - certainly the ultimate rock opera - and given that Steinman's songs have always been character and story driven this eases their integration into the realms of a dramatic structure more than most other rock musicals which utilise some pre-existing music. The plot and its children's story origin also have that something which exudes the ideals of 'rock', given the concept of burgeoning sexuality inherently simmers below the surface of the original J. M. Barrie story with Wendy (translated here into the character of Raven) on the cusp of womanhood. Steinman of course brings such elements well to the fore which is entirely appropriate for rock which has always been associated with sex ever since the genre emerged. The execution of direction and design is appropriately gauged and the musical becomes one of those rare creations where every element fuses in harmony to create the glorious whole.

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