BAT OUT OF HELL (The Musical)

Book, Music & Lyrics by Jim Steinman
Directed by Jay Schieb
A Mirvish Presentation at the Ed Mirvish Theatre
Opened October 25, 2017

Bat out of Hell has an absurd plot, largely ridiculously cliched characters, boringly repetitive but energetic choreography, an ensemble of mainly posturing performers where posture or whine or grunt or roar is confused with acting, and some remarkable special effects. Confetti cannons shoot out silver tinsel, a banquet table converts into a pink convertible car that crashes slowly into the orchestra pit and sends some of the musicians scurrying out of it, and a largely static motorbike explodes, sending its parts flying into the air to form an iconic heart that floats above an anti-hero who rubs blood from it all over his bare chest. These are, no doubt, the moments and effects that younger generations will remember into middle age the way their parents probably cherish memories of a crashing chandelier, an underground secret lake, dancing jellicle cats, or an American helicopter hovering over the stage from their most treasured Broadway musicals.

Enduring the two-hour-forty-minute show (including intermission) is a test and a trial, except for (and this is a mighty exception, indeed) Jim Steinman’s music and lyrics that run the gamut from tribal rock to tender love ballad to pop diva arias and stunning blues. For the most part, the songs are very well sung, especially by Andrew Polec’s blond, bare-chested Strat (leader of a never-aging band of teen underground rockers aptly called The Lost), Christina Bennington’s raven-haired Raven (teenage daughter of filthy rich tycoon Falcon with his own Trumpian tower, though minus the gold furnishings), Billy Lewis, Jr.’s Jagwire (one of the more memorable denizens of The Lost), and Danielle Steers’s Zahara (a busty, long legged beauty with a voice as melodiously sexy and grainy as Cher’s). The last two share a wonderful duet entitled “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad,” which, alas, is not how I would score this production.

Trouble is that Jim Steinman (the great song-writer and lyricist) also did the book, which is about as silly a rock libretto as could be imagined. Obsidian (formerly known as Manhattan) is the dark city of this musical’s fiction, and it is apparently divided into the vulgarly rich (the Falcos, who seem to have no neighbours) and the vulgarly low (The Lost who never age beyond 18). Jon Bausor’s set design is massively Wagnerian in a 21st century punk rock manner (replete with dark cave, tunnel, and huge overhanging wooden beams) offset by the richly grandiose Falco Towers, where security thugs are in black leather, and where virtually every act in every boudoir or room is videotaped live. It’s Trump’s reality T.V. without the orange-haired scumbag, though Falco is a scumbag of a different type: he’s usually bare-chested, wears a scar, tattoos, and nipple rings, and walks around with a bat covered with barbed wire. In one scene, the Abu Ghraib of Obsidian where The Lost are tortured in orange jumpsuits in a large cage, he belts out “In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King” He is evidently a former rocker who is off his meds. Rob Fowler, who plays him, is as coarse as the role. His wife, Sloane, is played by Sharon Sexton, and she lacks entertainment by her mister, at least of the raw, carnal sort. She spreads her legs invitingly, tumbles over a sofa in a lubricious display, but the actress has a nice way with throwaway wit. Well, the lady’s not fully a tramp, and she does get her all-out moment of lyrical eroto-mania by way of auto-mania with her old man in the number “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”

Andrew Polec (Strat) leads The Lost

The main thrust of the musical can be summarized as follows: teen rebel with a cause loves teen gal, loses her, wins her again, but loses a younger male teen devotee named Tink (evidently cursed with an obsessive gene and an even more perverse nickname) in the process. Shades of Hair, Peter Pan, Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and who knows what else. But the devil is in the bad details. How is Strat able to penetrate Falco Towers and slip into Raven’s bedroom without being detected by heavy security thugs and surveillance video? Are Falco and family doing their own version of Gene Simmons’s Family Jewels reality television series? Why do teenage hard rockers fall so easily into a line dance with limited movement vocabulary? And why after an age of Glam Rock are they all dressed perennially for Halloween or a bargain-basement version of Hair or Rent?

The songs, as I’ve said, are wonderful.



A Choreographic Work by Andrea Nann
A Dreamwalker Dance Company Production
for NextSteps Mainstage Series
Harbourfront Centre Theatre, October 19-21, 2018

Yuichiro Inoue and Kristy Kennedy (photo: Jeremy Mimnagh)

Andrea Nann’s 60-minute dance piece is a splendid demonstration of how movement (when allied to intertwining voices) can provoke meditation on human memorials to our interconnectedness with one another, space, and time.  It is a profoundly personal work, in which which dancer-choreographer Nann (indisputably one of our national treasures) re-introduces herself to herself via a monologue addressed to her audience. Born in Vancouver to Chinese parents, Nann dreamed of living on a planet with two suns (East and West). Now 51, and as elegantly supple and sinuous as ever, she subscribes to the Taoist belief that humans express the bridge between heaven and earth. Her piece is non-linear, being, in effect, a collage of music, lighting, spoken word, minimal scenography, and dance movement—quick with thought, passion, and changing affinities. To appreciate Dual Light fruitfully, it is important to join our concentration with that of the dancers, and leave ourselves open to its distinctive amorphousness.

On a largely bare stage, except for four chairs and a large overhanging tilted silver rectangle that can be lowered and shifted at different angles, Dual Light may seem pretentiously abstract—almost a repetition of a popular fallacy that modern dance can equal philosophy. The large tilted silver rectangle doesn’t really work in any appreciable way to enhance meaning or scenic effect, and therefore seems like a possibly good idea gone wrong, but while Dual Light investigates dimensions of knowing and seeing, sensing and acting, it remains rooted in palpable, incarnate images of the human body in delicate or tense semaphores, flurries of motion or passive instances of thoughtful silence. Not for nothing is there a soundtrack of a beautiful Chinese version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” where the quartet of dancers (two Asian, two Caucasian) sit quietly listening to the lyric, rhythm, and tone of the haunting ballad. The dancers derive their impulses to move, to configure, to incarnate from vibrations, whether from music or from spoken word or an inner psychological compulsion. Nann is heard in recorded conversation with her 87-year old father, a distinguished former professor who, after living alone for 30 years, sold his Vancouver home and moved to Toronto to live with her and her small family. What Professor Nann (I remember his being a very elegant, articulate man from my one and only brief meeting with him many years ago) discusses is the theme of leavings, whether through death or in life itself. And his daughter (who clearly has a tender, loving relationship with him) expresses this bitter-sweet wisdom about creative acceptance or acquiescence through her choreography of enlarged arcs, tilts, sweeps of the body, and intertwining limbs.

Kristy Kennedy and Brendan Wyatt (photo: Jeremy Mimnagh)

The general choreographic emphasis is on a low centre of gravity, where the dancer finds an axis close to the floor. There are some stunning sequences: Yuichiro Inoue and Kristy Kennedy (who now lives in the U.S.) perform a delicate duet of slowly moving cupped hands; Inoue also has a striking solo where his body vibrates to the exact beat of a Japanese recitative; Kennedy delivers a touching soliloquy that is truly a prose poem and then demonstrates her dynamic vocabulary of movement; Brendan Wyatt and Andrea Nann complement each other and the other two perfectly in their expressions of supportive intimacies. Just as the sound design by Joshua Van Tassel (merging Skydiggers, The King’s Singers, Kitakabe, and the Graduates with sheer vibrations) is a form of investigation, so are the dances and the dancers’ personal narratives. There are strong leanings, arcs of arm and leg, where physical presence elicits choice and consequence, but the exquisitely unfolding of the piece is gentle, liminal, and skilfully resonant with feeling and thought. One of the underlying moods is melancholy at the passage of loved ones, but this melancholy is not an end in itself: it reaches for some fundamental existential wisdom in personal narratives and a path forward in life with what Keats once called “negative capability.”


Choreographed and Directed by Wang Yuanyuan.
A Beijing Dance Theater Presentation at the Living Arts Centre,
Mississauga. October 5-6, 2017

Zhang Qlang (Ximen Qing) and Feng Linshu (Pan Jinlian) in “Golden Lotus” 

Wang Yuanyuan choreographed the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, but she is also deservedly famous for creating China’s avant-garde productions of Raise the Red Lantern and Haze. Her resume can add Golden Lotus to its list of stunning achievements, though the Chinese government cannot be persuaded to agree. In fact, China, the source of the famous 16th century novel, Jin Ping Mei or The Golden Lotus, and the birthplace of Yuanyuan’s Beijing Dance Theater company, has been banned from that country because of its explicit portrayal of sex, adultery, and corruption in a decadent society. It is highly ironic and mordantly amusing to see an entire political party quaking and shuddering over images that can find their inspiration in centuries of Chinese pornography. And when will censors ever learn that the very act of censorship helps boost curiosity about the forbidden thing? China’s ban on the novel has led to massive downloads of the text on the Internet. Yuanyuan’s 90-minute dance piece dances past the dreary, pontifical censors—but its signal triumph is not as pornography. Far from it: Golden Lotus in its present dance form is a thing of rare beauty.

China’s majority needn’t worry. Yuanyuan’s adaptation is hardly a scrupulously faithful adaptation. How could it possibly be—as a dance piece that strips down most of the period and plot detail, simplifies the leading characters, and aims at aestheticizing what could be a schematic parable. The front curtain is a wide rendering in black and silver that remains down all through the Prologue in dim light where a tableau of half-naked dancers (in transparent gauze and flesh-coloured body suits) sets the tone for this piece that builds and subsides, builds and peaks over and over. When the curtain does lift, what we see is a jumble of almost nude bodies, limbs entangled, flesh unflinchingly exposed. It soon becomes evident that there is an anti-hero, Ximen Qing (Zhang Qlang), lean of body, supple in his sexual athleticism, who has an insatiable lust for women’s flesh. He catches the attention of Pan Jinlian (Feng Linshu), a married woman dissatisfied with her husband Wu Dalang (Qin Ziqian) and who, like Qing, is also infamous for her huge sexual appetite. The two principals perform a pas de deux that showcases his vigorous arms and sinewy body and her long, legged extensions that stamp her as an aggressive seductress of the first order. She sits on his back and pulls one of his legs, and subsequently aims her buttocks at his crotch. She is relentless in her lust, refusing to stop even when her husband appears at a window. When he does return to the house, the adulterers murder him, just so that Pan Jinlian can marry Ximen Qing. Alas, as his fifth wife, instead of inheriting uninhibited conjugal bliss, she inherits familial intrigue and corruption.

Corps in “Golden Lotus”

Wang Yuanyuan’s adaptation is but a skeleton version of the novel, opting to focus on destructive human appetite than an entire society’s social, political, and moral blights. But in its own tightly modest terms, it is an artistic triumph, with stunning décor and lighting by Han Jiang (inky black paintings, a cyclorama of burnished gold with impasto effects highlighted by top lighting, and a series of long tapestries whose flaps allow dancers to emerge from and disappear into the invisible). Oscar-winning costume designer Tim Yip suggests a social and moral landscape by his colours and fabrics, especially in the heavy black robes for what I took to be high-toned, haughty society censors offset by the filmy costumes for the principals and corps that permit an extraordinary amount of flexible freedom. Composer Du Wei has created one of the most fascinating soundtracks I have ever experienced for dance, mixing traditional Chinese instruments and tones with edgy, grainy, harsh contemporary effects.

Pas de deux from “Golden Lotus”

But everything returns to the question of choreography and narrative, and even here, despite all the rigorous trimming, editing, and re-arranging, Golden Lotus is thrilling. Combining slow ritual with passionate eroticism, mystery with morality, the story limits its focus, gaining in dance power what it loses in fidelity to its huge literary source. To be candid, I did not get all the allusions made in the ill-written house program. Nor did I feel that the dance answered all my questions about its narrative. But what stage images created by a corps of twenty with absolute trust and faith in one another and in their choreographer! An octet of women, half naked to the waist, swaying in unison, their long, rippling skirts moving like water; an aggrieved husband performing his soul-destroying humiliation; two women engaged in a passionate contest (with sexual motive) on a gently rocking bed; the anti-hero’s physical collapse while surrounded by the tangle of hands advancing upon him; and his eventual backward disappearance into a huge shadow of what looks suspiciously like a woman’s vagina—emblem of the uncontrolled wild sex he has sought all his life.

But what of the title? There is no tangible lotus anywhere on stage, but there is a final Buddhist chant in Chinese, a sort of swan song, to remind us that the lotus (symbol of purity) floats above mud and on water: in other words, it symbolizes freedom from attachment and desire—the very things that bedevil Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing. A pity that there is neither an explanatory program note nor Sur-titles in English. A pity, too, that this magnificent production is wasted on the Living Arts Center, a huge cavern (never with a full house) built in all likelihood to commemorate a former mayor’s ego rather than for any sensible, rational, artistic reason. A pity, too, that the Chinese audience seemed intent on chattering and taking covert film or photos while the dance was in progress.

Highly recommended to those who value dance in a very high reach as art.