Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Jim Steinman's Bat Out Of Hell The Musical

Jim Steinman
David Sonenberg, Michael Cohl, Randy Lennox and Tony Smith
Opera House, Manchester
16 February 2017 to 29 April 2017

It’s 2100 and New York is ruled over by a brutal despot Falco who lives in a towering skyscraper. So far, so contemporary . . .

In the tunnels beneath the city roam a feral gang The Lost, consigned to always be aged 18. And from the look of the on-stage messages that tell you all this before this show even starts, all hopes of punctuation have been lost.

While Jim Steinman’s Bat Out Of Hell The Musical (to give its full title) is therefore firmly rooted in the future, in fact it is very much of the 1970s. Steinman is the writer and composer of a string of hits for rock icon Meatloaf and in one form or another this eventual world premiere has been taking shape since then.

Songs like Bat Out Of Hell, Dead Ringer For Love and You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth were always each a mini drama in their own right, so it’s not too difficult to thread them together and hope they hold together as some larger Wagnerian narrative.

Nearly two dozen songs are roped together here and shared pretty evenly around a huge cast, all of whom have the singing ability to match each soaring crescendo.

Rob Fowler as Falco, and Sharon Sexton as his wife Sloane, are especially adept at translating the music into the sub-plot of a faltering marriage. Likewise Danielle Steers as Zahara exerts a strong and potent voice and stage presence.

American performer Andrew Polec takes the role of Strat, leader of The Lost and a rabble-rousing Rimbaud figure whose poetry is also pegged at 18.

He develops an infatuation for Falco’s daughter Raven (Christina Bennington) – and there the story pretty well ends.

Not that it matters because the real star of this show is the show itself, a thunderous, huge-scale and dynamic design by Jon Bausor who appears to have broken down any constraints of the Opera House stage (not one of the largest to begin with) to create a wildly astonishing set on several levels, further enhanced by digital projection. Just one of its setpiece moments allows the cast to heave a car into the orchestra pit. The resulting sight gag would have been the best place to call the interval.

Instead the whole show rolls on at least half an hour too long, so intent is it on becoming a rock opera.

You can take the Bat Out Of Hell, but something a hell of a lot shorter would still have had enough to bat with . . .

Reviewer: David Upton

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Comment by David Cunningham

Credit where it is due: when The Opera House commit to a project they do not hold back. The stage, and a fair bit of the auditorium, has been gutted and turned into Jon Bausor’s jaw-dropping set – a dystopian vision of urban degeneration. Regional audiences simply never get to see productions of this scale and it makes all the difference in terms of generating anticipatory excitement and feeling that you’ve had value for your money. No corners have been cut here; there is even an elaborate and very expensive visual gag involving a car and the orchestra pit. The same painstaking approach is taken to the cast. Musicals are notoriously prone to gaffs but here the massive cast are drilled to vocal and dance perfection.

It is a wonder that it has taken so long for Jim Steinman’s Bat Out Of Hell to reach the stage. His songs are so over the top that they achieve an exaggerated cartoon quality that seems perfect for a musical. But Steinman over-writes obsessively; every song becomes an anthem. The songs also become interchangeable and impersonal – they are so long that cast members can join in and take a verse each and as a result we never get the chance to identify the individual quirks of the characters – they all sound the same. The only performers who get the chance to stand out are Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton who are able to achieve a tongue in cheek approach to the bombastic lyrics. But when you find yourself identifying with the villains it is a sign that the show isn’t going the way it was intended and that greater effort is needed to make the central characters more appealing

Comment by Paul Genty

Two things:

Has no one noticed/cares that this is based on Peter Pan? There's even a mischievous character named Tink

Is it just me or is the choreography the lamest thing about the show. It demands Arlene Phillips in her sexy heyday, it gets Saturday Special variety in its naffness.

Okay three things:

Whose dumb idea was that pit-orchestra joke after the car hits the pit? It has absolutely no place here, though I admit it's amusing.

Okay, four things:

It's probably the most extraordinary set I've seen and the cast is exemplary, with the caveats of character mentioned above that are entirely the book's fault

I think that makes five things though...

Comment by Alan Hulme

It used to be said about Lionel Bart's Blitz! - a long forgotten, also exclamation-marked, semi-success for the composer of Oliver! - that audiences came out humming the sets (Sean Kenny creations by the way, same as the much more famous Oliver! revolving structure).

And that's pretty much the case here. As my colleagues say above, they are some way beyond spectacular. Astonishingly they reach out and wrap around not just across and beyond the proscenium-side boxes but also up and over onto the theatre ceiling and way up into the flies - side masking, the pelmet, everything has been stripped away to open up a cavernous space the venerable old Opera House never knew it had. Post apocalyptic in feel, with a soaring skyscraper, multi-level acting spaces, an amazing tunnel that looks as if extends down to the river and so on, it's a masterwork of theatre perspectives.

For subject matter, the show itself has strong echoes of Queen musical We Will Rock You, in its day much derided by the critics but a huge popular success. Could Bat have a similar trajectory? Perhaps, I liked it a lot more than I expected to, there are a surprising number of quieter moments and the performances are absolutely full on. The book currently ducks and dives too much and more cuts still need to be made but for one reason or another it's a considerable theatrical experience.