Bat Boy: The Musical Portland Center Stage, 1111 SW Broadway, 274- 6588, Tues-Wed, Sun 7 pm, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through November 23, $16-$51 Owen Carey

The Weekly World News has been pumping out great, true stories for decades. "Ass Milk Turns Women Into Wild Sex Kittens"... "Firm Hires Parrot to Answer Phone Complaints"... and the old standard, "World's Fattest Cat Gives Birth to World's Fattest Kittens." But none of these captured the country's attention like "Bat Boy Found in West Virginia Cave." Bat Boy's valiant struggles in a world full of humans who fear and loathe him is an age-old tale that touches us all.

It hardly matters that Frankenstein, The Elephant Man, and about a million more movies/books/plays/video games have plucked the freak-amongst-humans riff. Bat Boy: The Musical rips off its sources with relish, tearing into cardboard characters and melodrama with savage delight. Portland Center Stage's production bulges with suitably campy performances. More than half the cast gets to play multiple roles, switching back and forth between different variations of the mountainside hillbillies Bat Boy must face. Singing ability is fairly inconsistent, but it's easy to overlook because everyone's comic timing is topnotch.

And this is to say nothing of the stars of the show, which are, in no particular order: 1.) Dex Edward's luminous, flexible set, which uses huge blown-up Weekly World News headlines to create a large variety of vibrant places. 2.) The always-reliable Susannah Mars as Bat Boy's tough-yet-vulnerable adopted guardian who harbors a dark secret. And 3.), not surprisingly, Wade McCollum as Bat Boy himself. We knew from last year's stellar performance as Hedwig that McCollum has a huge voice and a marvelous, expressive face. Here, he adds unparalleled physicality to the mix. His bat-like squeaks, twitches, and cage climbs alone are worth the price of admission.

McCollum sings beautifully, too, but strangely it's not nearly as interesting. Despite hilarious lyrics and dark, interesting orchestration, Bat Boy's songs are just not very catchy. In many spots melody is almost nonexistent, with nothing to connect strings of pretty notes and well-written words. In a less clever musical, this would be an issue, but in the side-splitting Bat Boy it's a minor quibble, and one that will surely be ironed out by the time the sequel roles around: Bat Boy 2: Attack of the World's Fattest Kittens. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS