Starkid Productions (or Team Starkid) are best known for their YouTube sensation A Very Potter Musical, the college-theatre-troupe-produced Harry Potter parody that garnered a crapload of views and made Darren Criss semi-famous. They’ve now tackled the Batman mythos in their new parody/fan musical, Holy Musical B@tman!, also now up on YouTube, a flawed but funny production that has a love/hate relationship with the Dark Knight.
Batman is Gotham City’s dark and gritty defender. Although beloved by the people, he feels put-out by a confrontation with the more powerful but less popular Superman (people keep calling him Captain Marvel). Batman realizes he has no friends and falls into a depressive mope even as a new villain, Sweet Tooth, takes over the Council of Rogues and begins plotting Batman’s demise. Soon an orphan arrives at Wayne Manor: Dick Grayson, who bonds with Bruce Wayne and joins him in his war on crime as Robin. But when the people of Gotham make it clear they think Robin sucks, Sweet Tooth finds his in and sets up a trap that forces Batman to choose between the citizens of the town he calls home and his new best bud.
Live theatre does not translate well to video. Videotaped theatre is never as good as seeing it live, as being in the moment as an audience. That said, the quality of Holy Musical B@tman! is apparent even on YouTube. It is a well-rehearsed, well-designed production, colorful and fun and particularly enjoyable for Bat-fans, I would imagine. But…
There’s a reason SNL skits are 3 minutes long.
There’s no way around it: Holy Musical feels long, as though the joke couldn’t sustain a two-hour play. There are some real slow patches in the book by Matt and Nick Lang (also sharing directing duties) where very little in the plot seems to progress. The script wrestles with its identity: is it a one-note send-up of all things Batman? Or does it have something serious and important to say about the power of friendship? The entire Bat-mystique takes some shots, and several moments are rooted in the more recent Bat-films. But the overall tone and inspiration seems to be derived from the campy 1960’s Adam West Batman series. Riddle me this: how do you make a parody of a parody? Answer: you can’t. But it’s also difficult to do a Batman musical too seriously: in a comic book, the darkness that drives Bruce Wayne can be compressed to a panel or a full-page splash. On film, a montage or a flashback will do the trick. In a musical, he has to sing about it. Uggh.
Which leads to problem #2: the songs just aren’t that memorable and/or hummable, the unforgivable offense of any musical. There are a few highlights in the score by composers Nick Gage and Scott Lamps; the villain-centric “Rogues Are We” and the Act 2 opener “Robin Sucks” are fun moments, and the Batman/Superman showdown “To Be A Man” is a keeper, but the opening number becomes no more than a constantly interrupted recitation of the show’s title after an oddly sincere first verse, the closing “Super Friends” is… awkward, the overall orchestrations are an 80’s sounding synth-pop, many of the tunes are constantly interrupted by long chunks of dialogue, and the anthem “The American Way” gets preachy, of all things.
Many tried-and-true superhero jokes are recycled: Superman’s glasses are a lame disguise, Superman’s villains are even lamer, Batman is the angsty-ist billionaire alive who keeps telling his secret identity to his girlfriends, etc., etc. But the Langs really know comic books and Bat-lore. Superman invites Batman to hang out and fight Solomon Grundy “on Monday,” and homage lines are thrown in from many a Bat-film, particularly Batman Returns (Batman refers to Gothamites as “squealing, wretched, pinhead puppets” a’la Danny DeVito’s Penguin.) Even the observation by a villain’s ladylove that his abuse feels “like a kiss” is lifted from a Harley Quinn story. But one neat incongruity the playwrights tackle that I’d not seen before are the discrepancy between Batman’s mantle, chosen to frighten criminals with the image he himself fears, and Robin’s bright and sunny disguise. To that end, Dick Grayson is given a very funny story about how his parents were murdered by a small singing Robin.
The cast is largely terrific, led by Joe Walker’s Christian-Bale-in-Adam-West’s costume Batman, a growling, borderline psychopath, and Brian Holden’s humble pie gee-I-wish-I-had-more-friends-because-I’m-totally-awesome Superman. The two of them are the glue that holds the piece together, which makes a long stretch where Holden doesn’t have much to do all the more painful. Chris Allen does a spot-on Michael Caine as Alfred (and also plays my favorite character in the play; more on that in a bit), and in a case of criminal miscasting Lauren Lopez, who picked up and walked off (or perhaps rolled off) with Potter as Draco Malfoy, spends the majority of Holy Musical hidden behind an old man wig and mustache as doddering Commissioner Gordon. You’re left to imagine the joy that would have been her Robin, particularly since Nick Lang does little with the role to make you remember him besides be irritating… which maybe was kind of the point.
Batman, though, is nothing without his villains, and the rogues here do not disappoint. These are performers who have never met a piece of scenery they didn’t find delicious (Denise Donovan’s Catwoman and Jaime Lyn Beatty’s Poison Ivy particularly get to chewin’ in a wonderful way), and while this, again, plays like the 60’s TV show, it’s so fun you don’t care… which makes it ultimately disappointing when many of the rogues appear for one scene and then never return. The villains all speak in puns so lame they’re cool, and the funniest are reserved for Chris Allen’s Two-Face, played here as a wannabe second-rate rogue (see what I did there?) In truth, his puns are no “better” than any of the others, but the Allen’s delivery sell his brief appearances into highlights of the show. And then there’s Jeff Blim, who effectively channels his best Jim Carrey impersonation (truthfully, some of his deliveries are so reminiscent of Carrey as The Riddler in Batman Forever as to raise intellectual property questions) as original candy-themed villain Sweet Tooth. Blim is particularly impressive delivering a long series of confectionary puns with accompanying props pulled lickety-split out of seemingly bottomless pockets.
The costumes are the high point of the production values, and costume designer June Saito has clad her superheroes in colorful and faithful uniforms, underoo-ed up in a way that fits the material perfectly. The best costumes belong to the rogues (isn’t that always the way?) with stand-out ensembles on Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, and Catwoman, although the cut-out facemask of Scarecrow’s costume is off-putting and I can’t imagine why Team Starkid couldn’t be bothered to spring for a prosthetic Penguin nose. The Lang’s direction also has its clever moments. Superpowers and feats are for the most part cleverly staged, Batman has a great habit of shouting the body parts he’s breaking on the various thugs he meets and beats, and the appearance of the Batwing is greeted with well-deserved applause. Choreographer Katie Spelman does yeoman’s work with her group of non-dancing comic actors; once again, “Rogues Are We” is the stand-out moment here. Corey Lubowich’s set is essentially a bare unit, but certainly comic-booky enough and serves its purpose, and the lighting design of Sarah Petty gives us all the right blues and strobes one would expect from the Dark Knight’s theatrical exploits.
Ultimately, Team Starkid has returned to what it does best: copyright-testing parodies designed to appeal to the wired-up internet demographic. (There may be a future column hidden in that last sentence…) While Holy Musical B@tman! doesn’t quite soar to the heights of A Very Potter Musical, it’s two hours or so of YouTube time well spent for the Batman lover (and hater) in all of us.
You can check out Holy Musical B@tman! at the Team Starkid webpage: http://www.teamstarkid.com/hmb.html
Tom Hoefner (@TomHoefner on Twitter) is a playwright, theatre director, college professor, and would-be novelist living in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. He once bought a jacket in Germany just like The Riddler’s. That was in high school. He still has it. He’s written about it. Extensively.
Check out “From the Casefiles of Race and Cookie McCloud”, a blog of super-short stories chronicling the adventures of Race McCloud, Private Eye, and his 15-year old former-secret-agent-in-training niece Cookie: http://raceandcookie.blogspot.com