Lizard Boy, the new musical-that's-not-a-musical at Seattle Repertory Theatre, begins humbly, as all epic fables must. Luke Skywalker was a farm boy, Bilbo Baggins was a homebody, Jesus Christ was the son of a carpenter, and Trevor—"the Lizard Boy of Point Defiance"—is a lonely gay kid with a skin condition, sitting in his room and creating his first Grindr profile.
"Hear me out," he tells the drawing of Spider-Man taped to his wall (next to images of Godzilla, Wolverine, and Jinkx Monsoon), explaining that he just wants to see if his old boyfriend is anywhere nearby. "I figure it's a literal gaydar app..." Soon, the sound of a ukulele tells Trevor he's aroused somebody's interest. Another young man appears behind him, and they play out their digital courtship on dueling ukes, a brief chord punctuating each line: "R u clean?" (Strum) "Wut do you mean?" (Strum) "STIs." (Strum) "I haven't got 'em." (Strum) "Do u like to take control?" (Strum) "Uh, I don't know." (Strum) "So ur a bottom!"
Trevor agonizes about whether to meet this mystery guy in song—"What do I have? I have a roof, I have a bed, I have enriching conversations with folks in my head"—but ultimately decides to leave the apartment and go into the world. Thus begins this hero's journey from insecure "freak" to comic-book superhero.
Along the way, we learn that when Trevor was a child, a dragon popped out of Mount St. Helens and was chased by soldiers to a playground in Tacoma where he and five other kids hadn't gotten the memo to evacuate. The soldiers killed the dragon, the kids were doused in its blood, and they all got superpowers—one became a shape-shifter, another turned clairvoyant, a third could control people and objects with music, and so on—except for Trevor. He just got scales and a sideshow nickname. Or so he thinks.
Though "musical" is the quickest way to describe this world premiere, commissioned by Seattle Rep artistic director Jerry Manning (who passed away last April), that's not quite the right word. Lizard Boy has just three actors, who are also its musicians. Its songs, written by Justin Huertas—who also plays Trevor—draw more from folk- and indie-rock musicians such as Ra Ra Riot, Ed Sheeran, and Belarus than from complex arrangements and key changes. The singing, director Brandon Ivie says, is not as clean and enunciated as it would be in classical musical theater. And the energy in the room, he adds, feels more like youthful ensemble work than a typical musical or play.
That was evident at a morning rehearsal last week, which turned a back room at Seattle Rep into something resembling band practice in mom's basement. The young artists buzzed with jittery enthusiasm, and a dozen instruments and their cases—cello, guitar, piano, glockenspiel, melodica, several ukuleles and kazoos—were scattered around the room. When someone in the room poked fun at them for rehearsing a song during a 10-minute break, Huertas replied that they don't have any breaks. "Oh, we have breaks," stage manager Michael John Egan gently corrected him. "You just don't take any breaks."
Lizard Boy is also a live-action comic book, but—unlike, say, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—it doesn't try to fake its way along with special effects. There will be projections, but Ivie says they're more atmospheric than prescriptive. "Not 'Here, look at this comic-book panel of a thing you don't do onstage,'" he says. "We're going to do it on the stage." Superpowers are cued musically: a pick-slide up a guitar string when someone's claws come out, or a high-pitched zing from the cello to indicate characters flexing their telekinesis. Toward the end, Ivie says with an incredulous-sounding chuckle, there's an "epic fight scene." The actors will have a superpowered brawl while playing their instruments—fighting, accompanying themselves, and underscoring their own battle all at the same time.
"It's not a musical, not a play with music, not a concert, but somewhere between all those," Ivie says. "When people ask me what it is, I'm like, 'Um... comic book meets Once meets Grindr?' When they press, I'm like, 'Here's the plot.' And then they say, 'Now I'm confused because that seems like a lot of plot.'"
The show, like its main character, is an original thing trying to figure itself out.
Whatever it is, Lizard Boy has been years in the making. In 2010, Huertas got his first role at the Rep right out of college, playing a high-school reporter in Speech & Debate. During the production, he got to know Manning and director Andrea Allen—"It was my first show and I didn't know why people were being so nice to me"—who consoled him during a bad breakup in the middle of tech week. Manning even offered to help Huertas find a place to stay if he needed to get out of his apartment. "I didn't take him up on it," Huertas says, "but I knew this guy was trying to keep me safe, trying to take care of me."
The next year, Manning saw Huertas play cello at some theater performance—Huertas isn't sure which—and called him in for a meeting. "'I have some vision of you on the Leo K [the Rep's smaller stage], by yourself, playing cello,'" Huertas recalls Manning telling him. Huertas was heading out on a North American tour, playing cello with Spring Awakening—Manning commissioned him to keep a free-associative tour diary and send the entries to Allen.
When Huertas came home, he and Allen began a weeklong workshop, sitting in a room and going through the entries, looking for material for a solo show. "On the second day," Huertas says, "Andrea got a phone call, was gone half an hour, then came back and said with her dark humor: 'This is going to sound weird, but I just got diagnosed with breast cancer. I'm going to go home, take care of my life, and I'll be in touch.'"
The workshop was canceled, but Manning shepherded the project—and discovered that he and Huertas shared an obsession with comic books. Huertas recalls him coming to one meeting with a beat-up paper bag, dumping the first 100 issues of Fantastic Four all over the table (in their plastic sleeves) and encouraging Huertas to look through them. "I said, 'I don't want to touch these! They're too expensive!'" Huertas remembers.
Somewhere during this process, Allen suggested Huertas write his coming-out story, which Huertas thought was too boring—"I told everyone 'I'm gay,' and they all said 'We know'"—so he embellished it by giving himself lizard skin and a struggle to fit in. Manning told Huertas to draw the Lizard Boy character and write scenes, and gently interrogated the universe Huertas was creating, trying to help him find its rules and internal logic.
They worked on the show for the Rep's New Play Festival in January of 2013 and brought in two other actors—William A. Williams and Kirsten deLohr Helland—as Lizard Boy's characters emerged. Manning wanted to get Lizard Boy into a Rep season but, by his own admission, did not have a head for directing musicals. (Huertas recalls one new song he brought into rehearsal that Manning "hated." Huertas taught it to the other two anyway. When Manning heard them perform it together, he completely reversed himself and insisted it stay in the show. It's the only song in Lizard Boy that has not changed since that day.) So Manning handed the project to Ivie—who has directed at the 5th Avenue Theatre, the Village Theatre, Lincoln Center, and off Broadway—asking if he could stay on as dramaturge.
Then, in April of 2014, Manning unexpectedly passed away. The Rep reported that he'd suffered sudden complications following a heart procedure. Allen had passed in November of 2012. Huertas says the faith and work both of those mentors invested in him has been an animating force throughout—and others involved in the production have talked about feeling during rehearsals "like Jerry is in the room."
"So Lizard Boy has to be amazing," Huertas says. "It has to be a show Jerry and Andrea would be proud of."