Austin, Portland and Gotham, three strange sister cities that are all connected by the surprising amount of people who like to wear costumes in public. And now we also share a musical.
A wild and hilarious musical adaptation of Tim Burton’s 1992 camp classic, “Batman Returns,” is having its Portland premiere this week at Revolution Hall. And just in time for the holidays.
That’s right, the holidays.
So you know, it’s festive. And to further jog your memory, this is the one with Michael Keaton as Batman, Michelle Pfieffer as Catwoman and Danny Devito as the violent, raw fish, eating Penguin. If during this memory trip you land on that nightmare inducing scene where Penguin bites the nose off a bespectacled man for calling him unsightly, then you’re probably wondering who the twisted souls are that are attempting to sell this tale to us as a Christmas classic.
It might not be a surprise to anyone but these next two performances at Revolution Hall were a collaboration between the two dueling champs of keeping it weird Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas. From the Portland side of things, there’s Matt King, the talent buyer over at Revolution Hall.
“I’m a big Batman fan”, King confided in me. I figured as much since he convinced his bosses to fly the entire production from Austin, Texas the moment he heard it existed, sight unseen.
From the rehearsal I was able to sit in on, I now understand his palpable excitement. But don’t come to “Batman Returns Returns” expecting a faithful note-for-note recreation of the movie. The plot is there, the characters are the same — sort of — but a lot of liberties have been taken. This is more of an irreverent satire, and it shows right down to its casting choices.
Batman is played by veteran punk frontperson, Sabrina Ellis, most well known for their bands Sweet Spirit and A Giant Dog. Ellis’ take on the Dark Knight is more Keanu Reeves than Christian Bale. Batman as a bro actually makes perfect sense.
Penguin is portrayed by Minnesotan singer, songwriter and actor Sean Tillman, who’s mostly known as his alter ego, Har Mar Superstar. Tillman has worked with the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Kelly Osbourne, SIA and most recently finished a tour supporting Lizzo. He also has a scroll worthy IMDB if you’re curious why he might look familiar.
Ellis and Tillman are the only actors from the original iteration of the production that are reprising their roles. The rest of the cast has been cherry picked from the Portland art and music scene.
Holland Andrews (Like a Villain) will be playing Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Toody Cole (Dead Moon) is donning the butler suit as Alfred. Bim Ditson (And And And/Rigsketball) finally gets to be the mayor. Sallie Ford (Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside) is interpreting the ruthless business mogul, Max Schreck, with a nod both to Bowie and Shrek (yes, the green Disney ogre). Eric Isaacson (Mississippi Records) is playing a lackadaisical paperboy. Stevie Pohlman (L.O.X./Mope Grooves) is stealing hearts as the Ice Princess. And filmmaker and director Lance Bangs will be our Commissioner Gordon. Confusing but impressive cast, right?
And every one of them is beyond excited to be part of the production.
Matt King, like a lot of people in the underground art scene, had only heard of the ruckus The Museum of Human Achievement (MOHA) was generating. MOHA is the warehouse turned artist run art space where “Batman Return Returns” had its first run. Zack Traeger, executive director of MOHA, is also one of its lead producers.
Traeger filled me in on how he and his producing partner, Neil Fridd, became the Max and Leo of Christmas themed weird rock musical adaptations.
“We’ve been doing shows of a wide variety for the last seven years. The way it started was Neil and I would ask about 30 bands to pick a conceptual or under-represented Christmas character. Each band would write a song from the perspective of that character and we would build a set for whatever character they picked,” said Traeger.
“So we built 30 sets throughout the space which is a giant warehouse, artist-run space. And then when the audience arrived we would tour them through all 30 sets as like a holiday experience,” he said.
Traeger and Fridd now develop a yearly Christmas musical and so far they’ve covered “A Christmas Carol” and “Die Hard,” which they renamed “Live Hard.” Most recently they premiered “Home Alone.” How recently? The last of the four shows was just this past Sunday.
After offering the audience of the last showing of “Home Alone” a full refund if they stayed to help pack up, Traeger and company took everything down, packed up the Sprinter van and drove 40 hours straight to Portland to do a completely different show.
“We probably shouldn’t have done two different Christmas musicals (this year),” he sighed out while staring at a place distinctly past my head (I suspected a mirage-like vision of his bed and a hot shower distracted his gaze at that very moment).
When chatting with the Austin-based writer and director of “Batman Returns Returns,” Megan Tabaque, about the tight turnaround she assured me she was in the zone.
“What’s cool about the structure of this play is that you can package it for a city or a particular community. So this very much feels like the Portland version of ‘Batman Returns Returns.’ And it’s been really great getting to know the city of Portland through this piece and the people Revolution Hall has suggested we work with,” she said.
Here’s hoping for an annual gift exchange of a Christmas musical adaptation between our two cities.
You can listen to the full story in the audio piece above.
Batman Returns Returns is at Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St., revolutionhall.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Friday, Dec. 19-20. $25.