The spring musical at La Canada High School doesn't open until June 1, but it's already getting bad reviews -- from some parents.
Last week, detractors and supporters of "Bat Boy: The Musical," now in rehearsal, packed a meeting of the La Canada Unified School District board. Worried parents asked officials to cancel the production of the satiric comedy about a creature who is half-human, half-bat. A representative of the conservative group Focus on the Family flew in from Colorado to speak to the board, which met on the campus.
But defenders of drama teacher Gale Caswell, who outnumbered critics more than three to one, cried censorship.
"Bat Boy," an off-Broadway hit whose title character was inspired by the pointy-eared creature of supermarket tabloid fame, is a story about the alienation and bigotry that the half-human mutant endures as he tries to assimilate. The original production touched on several dark themes, including incest, rape, bestiality and murder.
The play was not on the board's agenda, and no official action was taken last week. But individual members supported the production, with the caveat that it be made more appropriate for high school students.
Principal Michael Leininger said he told the 200 people at the board meeting that the play had already been toned down.
He said he had met with Caswell about the musical before parental e-mails began to fly.
"We sat down and went through the play," evaluating what was and wasn't appropriate for a school production and how specific scenes would be staged, he said.
"Obviously, you are not going to have a rape scene in the middle of a high school play."
A couple who asked that their daughter's name not be used said she read the script because she had considered trying out for the show.
"She told me, 'There is no way I would be in this play,' " the mother said, adding that she believed the play's themes ran counter to her daughter's values and the family's Christian faith.
In a letter addressed to the school board, the couple said that the material made their daughter "uncomfortable and fearful" and that reading the script was tantamount to sexual harassment.
Concerned parents posted their concerns on a website, www.nobatboy.com. The site is no longer in operation.
"The musical is filled with violent and graphic elements that we don't think are appropriate for kids under 18," the play's detractors wrote.
"We are very concerned that our teenagers were subjected to this material without proper parent notification as required by law.... Please know that we do not argue that under the 1st Amendment this play has every right to exist, but we are opposed to it being used in a high school setting."
On his website, Brian Flemming, who wrote the musical with Keythe Farley, thanked the board for supporting the drama department's decision to stage the play. "Apparently the drama students at the meeting were quite eloquent in defense of the freak (Bat Boy, not Dobson)," Flemming wrote, referring to Focus on the Family leader James Dobson.
"It's very unusual for anyone to be up in arms over 'Bat Boy' in high school," Flemming said in an interview. There have been about a dozen high school productions, including one last year at Jesuit High School near Sacramento. There, Flemming said, the musical was used by teachers to prompt discussion about tolerance and dramatic theory.
Leininger said this was the first time that a planned production had caused a furor at the school, which serves La Canada Flintridge, an upscale city just west of Pasadena.
"People have the right to their opinion," he said of the protesters. But, he said, "I support Mrs. Caswell and believe, with the modifications she will make, it will be appropriate for all age groups."
Outside the high school last week, parent Felice Lammi said she was glad the play would go on. She had attended the board meeting with her son, John, a 10th-grader who had filled her in on the controversy.
"I read the play and assumed it would be toned down" for the La Canada production, Lammi said. "I think the student body here is very intelligent and can be exposed to controversial material without being corrupted by it."
As students left school on a recent afternoon, many looked blank when asked if they had heard about the flap over "Bat Boy."
One student musician, who didn't stay long enough to give his name, said there was nothing in the play that he and his peers didn't already know about.
Then he said, shaking his head: "Parents grew up in a different time than we did."