Bat out of Hell: The Musical review – incoherent Meat Loaf extravaganza saved by spectacular music and confetti cannons

Musicals, with their complex marriage of narrative and music – not to mention movement, design, and other technical needs – can take years to develop. Hamilton was written over seven years. The Music Man took nearly a decade. Bat out of Hell, composer and record producer Jim Steinman’s passion project, however, had been in the works since 1968.

It spun out of a musical called the The Dream Engine – a show he created at university about outcast youths clashing with authority figures – which was slated for early development by the Public Theatre in New York. The show contained early fragments of songs that would later dominate the rock charts but never quite came together. Steinman was pulled on to another musical project at the Public, and met the performer Meat Loaf.

Their creative partnership altered Steinman’s life and projects, and soon these early songs were channelled into the creation of the Bat Out of Hell rock-album trilogy, which embraced a theatrical rock style Steinman liked to call Wagnerian and made love sound like the beginning and the end of the world. The pair, Meat Loaf said, belonged “heart and soul to each other”, and their musical ideals and ambitions grew around each other, towards each other, and occasionally in spite of each other. They died barely more than a year apart. Love and death, their songs often said, were linked.

In the background, as Bat out of Hell was released, The Dream Engine became Neverland, a post-apocalyptic Peter Pan story. In the 1990s, it became Bat out of Hell 2100. In 2008, the project was announced as Bat out of Hell. In 2017, it premiered in London.

After 49 years of toil, the love story of Strat (Glenn Adamson), a Peter Pan figure frozen at 18, and Raven (Kellie Gnauck), the daughter of a tyrannical landlord who seems to rule a post-apocalyptic New York, has finally made it to the stage.

As you might expect from such toil, correction, and re-branding, it’s entirely overworked. Steinman’s passion for the music and its meaning in his life, with themes of youth in revolt, freedom through music from convention, and love that changes you body and soul, has left him too close to the material. He is composer, lyricist and book writer of the musical, which now showcases primarily the musical from the Bat out of Hell Trilogy, with a few other notable hits (including It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, written by Steinman and covered by Celine Dion), and it’s clear that Steinman, whose gift has always been in music, couldn’t skilfully write the scenes connecting the story he’d believed in his whole life.

After mixed reviews in the UK, the US and abroad, the arena tour currently making one-night-only-stops around Australia – directed by Jay Scheib, who has been on board since 2017 – has slashed the book to its broadest strokes, cutting exposition, full scenes, set pieces and props. It barely makes sense as a story now; unless you look it up, you’ll have no idea who Strat’s gang of lost youths are or how they came to be “frozen” (a chemical spill, it turns out). It’s confusing, unsatisfying, and a little depressing: all that remains of the story are cliches, stereotypes and shortcuts, which undermine every character and narrative beat.

However, in an arena, with fire effects and confetti cannons and a tight, skilled, loud rock band (Michael Reed is the musical supervisor), the story is no longer the point. Everyone is there for the music.

Related: Meat Loaf was a spellbinding performer who fused sincerity with showmanship

And the music is still glorious. Adamson, a theatre performer from the UK, is a breathtaking rock vocalist, and Gnauck – originally from Australia, and the only Australian in the cast – rises to the punishing job of singing soaring rock, over and over, like it’s nothing; their duets, appropriately, are powerful. They make it all look far easier than it actually is to deliver.

The full cast is in great voice, but it’s Sharon Sexton, the Irish performer who plays Raven’s mother, Sloane, who you won’t be able to ignore. Onstage, she’s by far the most successful at translating the barely-there script into lines with personality and wit, and her vocal tone is stunning – when she’s reminiscing with her abusive, unpleasant husband about better times (Paradise by the Dashboard Light) and even reconciling with him for motivations that are never explained (I’d do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)) – you believe her and champion her. Her voice, trained for the stage, soars in an arena.

The less said about the aspects of Bat Out of Hell that make it a musical, the better. The costumes somehow have both a deliberately outdated dystopic aesthetic and feel painfully dated, there are troubling instances of abuse used as a shortcut for character development, the character of Tink, refashioned as a younger boy in love with Strat, misses its mark (even though they no longer kill him off in this arena tour), and the choreography feels like a pastiche of Rock Eisteddfod earnestness and bedroom-mirror rock posturing.

But that music. It still gets under your skin. It can still move you, thrill you, make you feel a little more alive. What a shame that the musical itself gets in the way of its magic. What a little triumph that it can’t dull its effects.