Bat Out Of Hell
22 June 2017
You know: it’s only rock’n’roll. But I like it.
When I was a child growing up in Berkshire, every now and then some neighbours in our little leafy cul-de-sac would receive a visitor in a large, black, chauffeur-driven car; he would emerge from the vehicle in a big, black coat, and make his way up the path to their front door, ring the bell, wait to be admitted, and then – as we later learned from the boy and girl of the house who used to play with the rest of our ‘gang’ – he would stay for tea with their mummy and the daddy, and chat, and laugh, and give presents, and take an interest in them all. He was an old friend of theirs, we were told. Despite their lives having taken very different routes, they had always stayed in touch. While he was inside, some of us would inspect the vehicle, and scrutinise its driver; the man behind the wheel remained aloof and uninvolved with our curiosity. And then, the large visitor in the dark coat would re-emerge, get back into his splendid vehicle, and drive off. And that, until the next time, would be that. Only much later were we to discover the name of this strange apparition: it was Meat Loaf.
For me, that story has come to represent what rock’n’roll is all about. The genre of popular music is a manifestation of the extraordinary brought into the everyday world; a visitation by a remarkable spirit into the lives of mere mortals. It is a phenomenon which – essentially – exists only in the transitory effects of sound known as music and lyrics. It is a powerful magic that we yearn to find and recognise and touch in the real world of material things, which is why we acquire the machines that create the music in our lives, and pay vast sums to stand in remote corners of immense stadia to glimpse – terribly far away and minute – the actual proponents of this arcana, the performers. Or, if luck is really going our way, we get to see a dramatization of it on the stage of a big, glamorous theatre. And that, O, my people, is what is on offer here.
Technically, this ‘event’, this ‘happening’, a stage show of a musical of a rock album that made a star out of Meat Loaf. It teeters between star-vehicle and concept-statement, and while ML is here as Associate Producer, it is really all about the songwriter – and what a songwriter – Jim Steinman, author of 900 million sales… and counting. That isn’t why people will show up to this spectacle, of course. They will come because of the legendary personalities that have given and continue to give these songs life and stamp them – indelibly – with their characters. Yes, a good song can be sung by any artist. But the performer has got to be as good as the tune and, in many ways, even better. These songs – pop songs – have to adorn the personality of the singer and the hearer, not the other way around. They accessorize the individual. They are taken up, or cast off, like any other fashion. When ‘a la mode’, they are beloved and adored; when the zeitgeist shifts, they can be forgotten in an instant. Ultimately, the degree of their popularity defines them, and no other criterion.
That makes the genre really quite different from everything musical theatre has become over the past four or five decades. Therefore, by way of illustration, who would want to approach this show in the same mood as one would encounter the real musicals launched in the same year (1977), like: ‘The Act’; ‘Annie’; ‘I Love My Wife’; and here in the UK, ‘Privates on Parade’, etc.? Who would countenance such churlishness, to confuse a pop product of the age of The Sex Pistols with the conventions of highly developed musical theatre of Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee? Of course, that year also saw stage musical adaptations of the back catalogues of The Beatles and Elvis Presley, and – subsequently – we have seen the rise and rise and rise of the supergroup Abba in their very own mega-success musical, ‘Mamma Mia’. That, however, is not ‘The Point!’ (another Broadway show of the season), a show that was both concept album and stage show, much in the mould of other great combinations of the period (‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, ‘Evita’, etc.). Did anyone at the time imagine such a life for ‘Bat Out Of Hell’?
If they did, then one can only hope and trust they would have been pleased with what we have here, a splendid technicolour macaroon by director Jay Scheib, with knock-out level musical supervision and additional arrangements by Michael Reed, orchestrations by Steve Sidwell, elephantine set design (that protrudes out of the Coli’s immense proscenium, making it look inadequately pokey) by Jon Bausor, who also provides the glitzy costumes with Meentje Nielsen, there are copious clever video designs by Finn Ross (superbly multiplying the levels and spaces where action is seen and heard, in a variety of film qualities), and lush, sparkly lighting by Patrick Woodroffe and eardrum-smashing or conversationally light sound by Gareth Owen. There are also some exciting fights laid on by RC-Annie. The comparatively weak link in the show is the choreography by Emma Portner, which just doesn’t have the same range and detail and empathy with the music. That aside, it’s a very, very classy package.
The cast have been wisely chosen for their amazingly strong, clear and exquisitely controlled voices. These songs, to be delivered night after night, are hugely taxing, and there are a lot of them. The album has been bumped up with a batch of titles, some written apparently for the show, others taken from the Steinman vaults. Whatever their source, and regardless of the scale of dynamics and theatrical presentation they require, the singers are always more than their equal. The star-vehicle-crossed lovers at the heart of this simple, Sin-City-type futuristic yarn are the heroically voiced tenor of the rebel Strat (named after guess which musical instrument?) Andrew Polec (who looks really, really nice with his shirt off and in very tight trousers), and the spoilt rich girl who finds her way to true love with someone of humbler origin, Raven, created here by Christina Bennington. Raven’s dad, autocratic ruler of the dystopian metropolis in which we find ourselves, Falco (Rob Fowler), is the baritone baddie – also with a stunning gym-honed physique, and a way of suddenly ripping off his trousers to expose just snugly contoured silver posing briefs that possibly hints at another line of work altogether. His spouse, the honey-and-bacardi-voiced Sloane, is none other than Sharon Sexton. This quartet carry most of the musical numbers with a flawless mix of operatic projection and sexy intimacy that will linger long and lovingly in your memory.
There are a lot of other parts in the company: a note of tragedy is furnished convincingly by Aran Macrae’s Tink, while Danielle Steers hits where it hurts with her empowered and consciousness-raising Zahara – the coloured maid who helps the white folks sort their shit out. Yes, the script does pander to stereotypes. No. It does more than that. It elevates them to the status of objects of veneration. And so do the lyrics, it has to be said. Steinman doesn’t shy away from some pretty corny lines; equally, he can turn exquisite poetry out of apparently the most conventional situation. Either way, he reaches out to the crowd and they love what he does.
So, if you love your rock’n’roll, you’ll love this.