Tim Burton's 1992 blockbuster Batman Returns doesn't exactly say, "Happy holidays!" But as producer of a stage version of that film sequel, Zac Traeger hastens to remind, the movie "is very much rooted in Christmas. There's the tree lighting, and the whole thing hinges on a Christmas Eve massacre. Penguin's gathering everyone's firstborn children, which is a weird little biblical subplot that people tend to forget."
"Passover plus Christmas," co-creator Neil Fridd adds. "The movie's got it all."
Batman Returns Returns comes to Revolution Hall this week by way of Austin, Texas, where Traeger is the director of the all-encompassing creative venue the Museum of Human Achievement. That's where he and Terror Pigeon frontman Fridd debuted their immersive musical theater adaptation last year.
It's the same bat play in a new bat town with a no-less-batshit raison d'etre: the co-creators' abiding passion for Yuletide spectaculars. The original inspiration for Batman Returns Returns dates to the themed band nights Fridd threw at the now-shuttered Brooklyn art space Silent Barn a decade ago—hipster pageants in which acts crafted tunes from the perspective of Christmas figures.
Traeger invited Fridd to host something similar at MOHA, and three winters of growing popularity for those shows led to 2016's A Christmas Carol. The following year, they continued their holiday-themed tradition with a song-stuffed Die Hard pastiche.
Recognizing the value of a stage veteran who could shape the intricacies of their planned Caped Crusader cavalcade, the pair enlisted playwright-director Megan Tabaque to "morph these fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants installation experiences into more elaborate narratives," she says.
Tabaque's resulting adaptation provides a somewhat faithful, always coherent summarization of the source material's plot, while incorporating the anarchic whimsy of her collaborators—villainous tycoon Max Shreck's role was swapped with a cartoon ogre of the same name—and revising some of the dialogue.
"It was really exciting to update the politics for a new generation," says Tabaque. "Some of the Penguin's inclinations way back then were quite misogynist, but actually, a lot of Catwoman's dialogue has quite a modern feminist tone. She's very independent and kind of reclaiming herself in a way that coincides with the #MeToo movement. We take liberties. We genderbend. We reach for diversity—all those things that are important parts of the conversation now when making art. And incorporating songs really makes it alive."
Aside from the roles of Batman (Sabrina Ellis) and the Penguin (Har Mar Superstar), the entire production has been newly cast with Puddletown's finest. Acclaimed filmmaker Lance Bangs plays Commissioner Gordon. Bim Ditson, drummer for WW's Best New Band of 2011, And And And, takes his rightful place as Gotham's mayor after running for the actual position in Portland in 2016. Most notably, for the part of Bruce Wayne's butler and the film's embodiment of enlightened virtue, the creators somehow wrangled Dead Moon co-founder and cherished indie icon Toody Cole.
"In Batman," Traeger explains, "everyone's perspectives and ethics are generally a little questionable, but Alfred is like this guiding light. When Neil and Megan and I went to hang out in Portland, we asked about the moral center of the city, and people kept bringing up Toody."
Continuing along the production's Austin model, actors have been told what information needs to be conveyed during a musical number, but the tunes themselves are left up to the participants' discretion. More troublingly, the creative team won't arrive from Austin until the final show of MOHA's current Christmas pageant, Home Alone, which leaves only five days for rehearsal.
"I come from the theater world, where you usually rehearse a musical for months and months," says Tabaque. "With this show, we'll arrive a week before and not yet know exactly what's going to happen except we're going to work our asses off. Very unconventional, but punk. "
SEE IT: Batman Returns Returns is at Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St., revolutionhall.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Friday, Dec. 19-20. $25.