Love At First Bite: Deven May’s Consuming Passion For Bat Boy The Musical

Love At First Bite: Deven May’s Consuming Passion For Bat Boy The Musical Yul Brynner is The King. Robert Preston is Harold Hill. Rex Harrison is Henry Higgins.
Deven May stars as Bat Boy.
Deven May stars as Bat Boy.

Yul Brynner is The King. Robert Preston is Harold Hill. Rex Harrison is Henry Higgins.

Deven May is...Bat Boy.

Who? What? Based on the exploits of the half-bat, half-boy popularized by the Weekly World News (the National Enquirer for those who find that publication way too sophisticated a read), Bat Boy The Musical sets the tabloid sensation to song. A hit for the Los Angeles-based Actors’ Gang in 1997, Bat Boy has glided into the Union Square Theatre.

The production, further developed by New York’s Directors Company, is now under the wing of Scott Schwartz, whose co-direction of the current Broadway musical of Jane Eyre could not be more different. Bat Boy has been revamped substantially since that initial run, but it has always had two constants. One is a belfry’s-full of catchy comic tunes by Laurence O’ Keefe. And the other is May, who originated the role and brings it Off-Broadway in his New York debut.

Playbill On-Line caught up with the performer at the vegetarian eatery Zen Palate, near the theatre but an unlikely hangout for a bat boy. “He’s trying to curb his appetite for blood,” kids May, who is sipping an apple ice tea. “He wants to be a more perfect, human-like being.” Bat Boy’s problem in the show is that he can never be human enough for the citizens of God-fearing Hope Falls, West Virginia, who are horrified at the alien in their midst. But Manhattan has been less intimidating for this San Diego native. “I expected to get kicked in the butt, but it hasn’t happened. New York is unlike any other city—not an original thought, I know,” he laughs.

Over forkfuls of grilled greens, May relates the flight path that has taken him, and Bat Boy, eastwards. The 29-year-old actor’s interest in musical theatre began in the ninth grade, “when I saw my older brother in plays and couldn’t believe how transformed he was. I wanted to do that.” What intrigued him most about Bat Boy were the elements that were more “Rocky” than Rocky Horror, that recalled his own childhood struggle with obesity. “I was the lowest common denominator, the fat kid who got picked on a lot, ‘different,’ like Bat Boy. It was almost as if the part had been written for me.”

After a period of intensive vocal instruction and a couple of years of college (“I studied opera at first, but it was too rigid for me”), the bat-to-be decided to leave school to pursue his career. “I learned a lot, through doing shows, and making mistakes, and falling on my face.” His best on-the-job instruction, he says, came from performing at California’s theme parks, first Disneyland (playing an unspecified character in a Beauty and the Beast show; “they make you sign forms never to reveal which one”), then Universal Studios Hollywood.

“I played Barney Rubble in a live `Flintstones' show there for two years,” he recalls. “I was a good 40 pounds heavier at that time, which was OK, because Barney is a thick-bodied guy.” (May, compact in size, is trimmer today). "I also played the ‘transfunkified’ Phantom of the Opera in a `Beetlejuice' show, while also doing improv and other kinds of work. Theme parks were like college for me: everyone is hustling to get things done, and there is always so much to do. As an actor, you perform in up to 10 shows a day, 20 minutes for each, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, just constantly.” One of his friends from that period, playing Dracula to his Phantom, is Wayne Brady, who graduated to the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

May also looked to move on to fresh challenges. “You don’t really ‘own’ Barney Rubble. You stand in his sandals, so to speak. And his dress, which is what his outfit basically is.”

Enter Bat Boy. “A friend who was involved with the show before I was called me and said, ‘You have to come in and read this script.’ I thought, ‘Oh, Bat Boy…whatever.’ But I fell in love with it. I identified with it right off the bat…no pun intended….”

Others were dubious. “No one thought I should go up for it. ‘Yes, The Actors’ Gang is a well-respected company, but you’ll be in a 99-seat theatre, you won’t make any money, go do Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Santa Barbara instead.’ I heard all that, but I wanted to originate this part.” O’Keefe, and story and book authors Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, decided May was their Bat Boy on the strength of his audition piece (“Anthem,” from Chess), the force of “my primal scream, which they asked me to do, too,” and the Prince Charles-like British accent he was requested to come up with for the part.

Bat Boy’s physical tics and gestures May devised over time. “At first, it was ‘Apeman with bat ears,’ but we tweaked and tweaked it. The quickness of bats inspired me, but most of it comes from watching how my cat and dog interact with me and other people.”

For a chunk of the first act, however, the part of Bat Boy would seem to offer few opportunities beyond that for self-expression. Upon being discovered in a cave, the (nearly) naked creature flits about the stage, as strobe lights go off. Subdued, the boy bat is bagged and tagged, forced into orange prison garb, stuffed into a sack, then transported via wagon to a veterinarian’s house, where he is promptly caged. Barney Rubble never had it so bad. But when Meredith Parker, the vet’s wife, christens the humanoid “Edgar,” and teaches him to talk using flash cards, the character comes into his (or its) own.

Wedding his jerky, mammalian movements and elongated teeth and ears to that surprise British accent and a full-throated singing voice, May brings the house down with the number “A Home for You” (with a spirited assist from Meredith, played by May’s fellow Bat Boy veteran, Kaitlin Hopkins). With his later solos, an amusing plea for acceptance called “Let Me Walk Among You” (“Let me join your carpools/let me drive the cars”) and the moo-ving tune “Apology to a Cow,” the performer finds his own roost in the annals of campy musical spoofery. A Bat Boy is born.

Not that there weren’t misadventures along the way in LA. After a long run in multimillion dollar theme park shows with expensive effects and animatronic creatures, “we really were in the smallest house I had ever seen,” May says. “We had to move our setpieces so audience members could use the bathrooms. I think the budget was between $2,000-$5,000; I had to pay to get my own mother in to see it. In previews, I had a makeup disaster: I used to wear a bald cap for the part, and during one number, ‘Show You a Thing or Two,’ I was sweating so much that the adhesive that held it in place melted and it just popped right off my head, taking my bat ears with it.”

But Bat Boy The Musical did show L.A. critics and audiences a thing or two in its first production, which ran from Halloween to Christmas season in 1997. “A cult quickly formed around it. Paul Stanley from KISS came to the show. TV and movie stars came and told me how much they enjoyed my work, which blew my mind. A guy came up to me from Maury Povich Productions and said he wanted to do a deal with me. I thought, ‘For what? I’m a bat.’”

A bat who was going places, or so it seemed. May won the 1998 Ovation Award for Best Lead Actor in a Musical for his performance, and the show received additional honors from L.A. Weekly and Dramalogue. But plans to move the show to Chicago or Boston never materialized, and May, hopeful for another run, took other work, this time in another of America’s themed entertainment capitals, Las Vegas.

He played Griangiore, the poet/narrator of Notre Dame de Paris, an ill-fated French import that played at the Paris Las Vegas Resort & Casino along the Strip. “Vegas has beautiful theatres and it could be a kind of Broadway. But audiences did not respond to an intelligent show about love. They wanted to see boobs.”

Meanwhile, a demo CD of the score the original cast and crew had cobbled together and submitted won the 1999 Richard Rodgers Development Award, which put the production on The Directors Company’s radar (or sonar, given its subject). On breaks from Notre Dame, May participated in Bat Boy’s subsequent workshops (attended by Stephen Schwartz and Stephen Sondheim, both fans of the show’s score, the actor says). In 2000, the show received the Richard Rodgers Production Award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. May was in Milwaukee late last year, performing in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, when Schwartz sent word that Bat Boy was likely to fly once more, Off-Broadway. The performer is delighted by the show’s progress, despite long, arduous rehearsals and revisions, from the songs and storyline to the makeup, as opening night nears.

“Scott has brought a new dimension to it,” he says. “And all the theatre people here have helped it. It’s evolved out of necessity; after three years, parts of it needed a facelift, and we’ve all grown along with it. Rehearsals have been crazy and full of changes, but it’s been fun. You’ll be batty for Bat Boy,” he laughs, in a pitchman’s voice, as he departs the restaurant for the evening’s performance. He observes: “Most Off Broadway plays seem rather dark and depressing, but this one is unique. I’d love to play the part forever.”

But watch your back, Bat Boy: On March 29, the Adobe Theatre Company unveils a comedy called Hooray for Iceboy, described as a “’rags to riches’ story about the mysterious Iceboy, who is discovered by a group of explorers and introduced to the melodramatic theatre scene of the 1940s where he becomes quite a sensation.” Frankenstein met the Wolfman: if these plays become sensations, perhaps May will consider a reprise in Bat Boy Meets Iceboy.

— Robert Cashill