The "Bat Out of Hell" musical premiered in Manchester before moving to the London Coliseum over the summer, and fortunately for me it included a time when I would already be in the capital for Wimbledon!
Most musicals based on pop or rock albums take the songs first, then put together a musical from them. Bat Out of Hell started life the other way around.
Songwriter Jim Steinman has been working on a musical based on Peter Pan meets Romeo and Juliet long before Cleveland Records bravely took on an album that no one else wanted and brought Steinman’s music to the world’s attention in 1977.
Forty years later, on a hot summer night, in front of a knowledgeable and appreciative audience aged between 20 and 70, it starts with a bang. I knew it would. I have not read or heard anything anywhere saying any such thing, but I knew it would. It’s the sort of thing Steinman would do to shatter everyone out of their senses (and their seats).
Strat, played by Andrew Polec, is the 18-year-old leader of a group of un-ageing boys called The Lost. He falls in love with Raven (Christina Bennington), the daughter of Falco, tyrannical ruler of a futuristic New York, now called Obsidian. Falco forbids Raven from leaving his Trump-tower or meeting any of the Lost, but being a typical teenager, she rebels against his authority.
The stage is divided into three. Most of the action takes place on the stage at street level, but there is a first floor level to the right hand side which is used as Raven’s bedroom. On the top left is a screen which shows a close up view of the actors, fed by a cameraman who follows them around in the tower. It is both an indication of the Big Brother-type stranglehold of Falco but also a clever way for the audience to see what the actors look like.
It gets even better when the screen is removed for the Lost’s underground hideout but the backdrop still provides a projection area to create a more dreamlike experience. Falco’s tower is an immense lattice of faux steelwork, jutting out aggressively into the ornate surroundings of the Coliseum. They’ve probably never known anything like this at the home of the English National Opera.
It’s all very loud. Even the comparatively quieter songs like “Heaven Can Wait” and For Crying Out Loud have the volume up to eleven. I was glad I already knew the words to 95% of the songs and could pick up on the glorious lyrics amid the bombastic orchestration.
The notable exceptions are “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”, a duet between the sassy Zathura (the excellent Danielle Steers) and hot blooded Jagwire (a raw yet suave Dom Hartley-Harris), and “Not Allowed to Love” which is sung with a haunting plea by Aran MacRae as Tink.
Fortunately, “What Part of My Body Hurts the Most?” is not only audible, but is one of the most memorable songs despite its rarity, up to now featuring only as a demo or a one-off live performance, and is sung with every ounce of passion and pain that it demands by Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton as Falco and his wife Sloane.
And what of the young lovers? Polec has the unenviable task of taking on many big tunes sung by a big man with a big and unique voice, but he shoulders the challenge admirably. Yet to me Strat seemed weird rather than charismatic. Perhaps if he had sung “Bad For Good” when he first met Raven I’d have been more won over, a song which despite its teasing quotes scattered throughout never appears in full.
Bennington as Raven has a dark, gothic, ethereal beauty and she provides both a visual and acoustic foil to Strat and their voices blend together during their duets.
The cast in general is young and their exuberance and energy is needed over a three hour set. While the group dance choreography can get a little repetitive in that time, their enthusiasm cannot be faulted. It must be wonderful for the cast when the audience joins in with the clapping at the end of “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth”.
With 17 epic Steinman songs I had been concerned that some of my favourite instrumental parts (yes, I have favourite instrumental parts!) would be dropped to save on the running time. Happily my fears were unfounded as the instrumental after the second chorus of “Objects in the Rearview Mirror” was there in all its soaring electric guitar and piano glory.
“Paradise by the Dashboard Light” even includes the tongue-in-cheek baseball commentary, which seemed a bit odd to me, but then two hours beforehand I had been sitting on Centre Court at Wimbledon watching Johanna Konta v Venus Williams while surrounded by Pimms and strawberries and cream.
The video camera came into its own during "Paradise", turning the play-by-play between the reminiscing Falco and Sloane into a mini-movie which played on the large screen, adding a clever dimension and twist to the story. There’s a delightfully humorous moment involving a car and the orchestra that does not end well for some of the instruments.
The first act ends with a frenetic “Bat Out of Hell” as Strat and Raven attempt to escape Obsidian and features a memorable slow-motion motorcycle crash that drew gasps from the audience.
We are only halfway through and have been treated to so many songs that we know and love, yet there were still plenty more of them to come! Incredibly, all the songs from the Bat I album are there, as are half of those from Bat II, the aforementioned lesser known pieces, plus “Dead Ringer For Love”, “It’s All Coming Back to Me” and “Making Love Out of Nothing At All”.
After the cast had taken their final bows to rapturous and somewhat emotional applause, the band in the orchestra pit were still playing. The theatre was emptying but I hung back, as did a few other people. Conductor Steve Sidwell was guiding the orchestra through excerpts of other songs that we recognised. One of my favourites was “Good Girls go to Heaven”, so I just stood at the balcony railing and listened, taking in every note and chord.
Halfway through act two I had found myself wondering how many more times I would get to hear these amazing songs performed live. The story may be one we have heard many times in many iterations but everyone in the audience was there for the songs. For the imagination and genius of one man to create so many beautiful songs and to see this man’s vision finally come to life after over 40 years.
As the lyrics in “Rock 'n' Roll Dreams” go: “someone must have blessed us when he gave us those songs”.
Jim Steinman certainly did.