Rising from the ashes: Fil-Am playwright brings ‘brown’ to the fore

Trevor (Justin Huertas) and Cary (William A. Williams) are threatened by Siren (Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Lizard Boy,” performing October 6-31 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. | Photo by Kevin Berne

‘Lizard Boy’ to premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

“From the ashes of Mount St. Helens emerged a monster with mysterious powers—powers that changed one boy’s life forever. Freak or hero? Trevor is about to find out with a little help from Mr. Right. Join triple-threat Seattle artist Justin Huertas and friends for one fateful night of adventure, music and love set on the streets of Seattle. Equal parts comic book lore, coming-of-age love story and irrepressible tunes, audiences can expect the unexpected in this indie rock musical.” - LizardMusical.com

Featuring an infectious score that’s been streamed more than one million times on Spotify, “Lizard Boy”  explores a first date turned mythological journey. The original cast members will reprise their roles at TheatreWorks with playwright/composer-lyricist Justin Huertas alongside Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland and William A. Williams — all making their TheatreWorks Silicon Valley debuts at the Mountain View Center For The Performing Arts.

A self-professed comic book nerd, Huertas found inspiration for “Lizard Boy” from a lifetime love of Marvel. As a Filipino American, Huertas grew up watching his favorite character, Spider-Man, and many other caped crusaders being portrayed primarily by white actors. This lack of representation among Filipino Americans inspired him to create “Lizard Boy”.  Trevor (the main character portrayed by Huertas himself) did not feel that he fit in because of his lizard scales and the color of his skin. He unlocks his true powers and discovers himself as he endeavors to save the world.

Commissioned by Seattle Repertory Theatre, “Lizard Boy” debuted in 2015 to sold-out houses — sweeping the Seattle awards season. It continued to develop through productions at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre, staged readings at Playwrights Horizons, and became a recent favorite at the 2020 National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival.

A Seattle-based award-winning playwright, composer-lyricist, actor, and musician, Huertas also wrote “The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion” (co-composed with Steven Tran) for ArtsWest Playhouse & Gallery, and “Lydia & the Troll” (co-created by Ameenah Kaplan) for Seattle Rep. He is composer-lyricist for “Howl’s Moving Castle” (Book-It Repertory Theatre) and “The Lamplighter” (co-written with Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland and Sara Porkalob). Justin is currently under commission at Seattle Rep, the 5th Avenue Theatre, ArtsWest Playhouse & Gallery, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Kirsten “Kiki deLohr Helland plays Siren — an enchanting and mysterious musician whose voice is taking over Trevor’s dreams. Helland is a Seattle-based award-winning performer. Her theatre credits include performances onstage at 5th Avenue Theatre, Village Theatre, ArtsWest, and Seattle Rep (in the World Premiere of “Lizard Boy”), and in the film “Laggies.” Helland is co-writer of “The Lamplighter” (with Justin Huertas and Sara Porkalob).

William A. Williams plays Cary, a charming and charismatic newcomer to Seattle who connects with Trevor on a dating app. Williams is a California native musician/actor now based in New York City. He originated the role of Cary in “Lizard Boy” at Seattle Rep, for which he won a Gregory Award for best supporting actor. He has also acted in productions at Contemporary Classics, Village Theatre, and Seattle Shakespeare Company, played guitar for shows at ArtsWest and Balagan Theatre, and played bass guitar for The Iceman Lab at Target Margin Theater.

Brandon Ivie (Director) is currently the Associate Artistic Director at Village Theatre in Seattle. He directed the World Premieres of “Lizard Boy,” “The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes,” “Jasper in Deadland,” “String,” “The Yellow Wood,” and “The Hinterlands.” His Broadway credits include associate directing “A Christmas Story” and “First Date,” dramaturgy for “Catch Me If You Can,” and assisting the writers of “Next to Normal.” He has worked on productions at leading theatres across the country including The Public Theater/Joe’s Pub, HERE Arts Center, Prospect Theatre Company, Paper Mill Playhouse, Signature Theatre, Barrington Stage Company, Goodspeed Musicals, Ford’s Theatre, The Kennedy Center, Seattle Rep, Diversionary Theatre, and The 5th Avenue Theatre where he spent four seasons as Casting Director. Ivie is the Drama League Directing Fellow, holds the Charles Abbott Directing Fellowship, and participated in the LCT Directors Lab.

Trevor (Justin Huertas, center) debates leaving his apartment with encouragement from Siren (left, Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland) and Cary (William A. Williams) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Lizard Boy.” | Photo by Kevin Berne

“Lizard Boy”  features scenic design by L.B. Morse, scenic adaptation by Andrea Bechert, costume design by Erik Andor, lighting design by Robert J. Aguilar, and sound design by Jeff Mockus. Taylor McQuesten serves as stage manager, with Emily Anderson Wolf and Chloe Rose Schweizer as assistant stage managers.

Up close and personal with Lizard Boy

In an  interview with the Asian Journal, Huertas shared how he came up with Lizard Boy as a character as well as the ideation process behind his first foray into musicals.

Asian Journal (AJ): What was the ideation behind creating ‘Lizard Boy?’ Why did you choose a lizard as a character?

Justin Huertas (JH): Lizard skin was something that was chosen on instinct. This is the first musical I ever wrote, I was in my early twenties, and I had no idea what I was doing, so I often went off of instinct and asked myself questions like: “What do I want to see on stage?” or “What do I want to do as an actor?” I knew I wanted to be a superhero. I knew that I wanted my superhero to be queer, but I didn’t want his queerness to be the source of his trauma. So, his struggle and coming of age would come from something else and that would also be the source of his power. I chose lizard skin almost arbitrarily and it wasn’t until I was developing the show further that I understood I was writing about my experience growing up Brown in primarily white spaces. Trevor’s struggles with identity were actually an exact parallel to my own when I was young.

AJ: What about the music? Why did you choose indie rock as a genre for your musical? What would you say were your strongest influences?

JH: Indie rock and pop were some of my favorite genres to listen to. I learned to play guitar, I had just come off of playing cello on the Broadway National Tour of ‘Spring Awakening,’ so this kind of music was something I felt very close to. It also felt like a very intuitive genre for me to write lyrics to. Whenever I’m writing songs, I want the lyrics to be sung with the same energy and emotion I’d use to yell them or scream them. And for me, that aligns with folk, indie, rock, and pop.

AJ: Would you say that Seattle’s reputation as the birthplace of grunge/alternative rock was also influential in your musical pursuits/endeavors?  

JH: I think Seattle’s musical influence on me was mostly unconscious. I wanted to set some of the shows in a Seattle rock venue, The Crocodile, which in the past was a dingy dive like CBGB. That aesthetic ended up informing what our set would look like, which then very much influenced how I’d write.

AJ: You said Lizard Boy’s music started with you teaching every song by ear. What would you say inspired the arrangement and lyricization of the music while you were doing it “on the fly like a garage band?”

JH: Yeah, I’d write songs alone on a guitar, and then bring them into rehearsal and teach them by ear, which was also an intuitive process for me. Kiki and Bill are close friends who I’ve played music with before, and that’s how I’d teach them any song. The cool thing about this process is that because we have that built-in friendship and vocabulary, we’re so game to experiment and pick up different instruments or try crazy harmonies, whatever best serves this new song. Traditionally, in workshops for musicals, the composer would create a new song and send it off to the copyist to create sheet music and, depending on the resources, that sheet music would be plopped in front of an actor two days later. But with Lizard Boy, if I’m struck with inspiration some night and I write a song, I can literally bring it in the next morning and start jamming on it with my castmates.

AJ: When you said that you are still ‘gearing up for a third revised production’ and that ‘the score isn’t quite frozen,’ what should fans of ‘Lizard Boy’ expect? 

JH: A new song! While we’ve had two productions, we’re a small crew with limited time and resources, so not only am I constantly wanting more time to experiment and try new things before we freeze the show. With TheatreWorks and our ‘Lizard Boy’ producers, we’ve been granted so much more time and space to continue creating, and I’m so excited to share with fans what we’ve created!

AJ: As a Filipino American, did you seek inspiration from Philippine folklore to build your ‘Lizard Boy’ character?

JH: I actually didn’t! I created this character on instinct and created new mythology based on all the superhero comic books and television shows I grew up loving. I was definitely inspired after creating ‘Lizard Boy’ to dive into my Filipino-American identity and that shows up in my other shows.

AJ: In FabulousWashington.com, you spoke about Sara Porkalob as being one of your sources of inspiration.  What is it about ‘Dragon Lady’ and ‘The Dragon Cycle’ trilogy which drew you in?

JH: Sara is a super close friend of mine. She and I connected for a random project back in 2016 and we truly never left each other’s sides. When I finally got to see ‘Dragon Lady’ (this was after I’d written and performed ‘Lizard Boy’  and worked on new commissions), it was the first time I’d ever seen a story about a family that resembled my own. I hadn’t seen a Filipino family on stage like that before, and I truly had a moment of “oh wait, we can do that? We can share our stories like that?”

AJ: Growing up in Washington state as a Filipino American, what is it about being Filipino that you are most proud of? 

JH: I think what makes me most proud is, honestly, our pride. Filipino people have been through a lot. A lot of what Filipino-Americans are now comes from centuries of colonization, and we are constantly being tasked to reject and embrace aspects of our colonization. But instead of saying ‘we aren’t this’ or ‘we aren’t that,’ we say, we are everything. Everything that came before — all the trauma and suffering, all the independence and celebration, our grandmothers, our siblings, and however we decide to pass that experience down to the next generation — we are all of that.

Cary (William A. Williams) looks on as Trevor (Justin Huertas) is enchanted by Siren (Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Lizard Boy,” at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. | Photo by Kevin Berne

Lizard Boy: A theatrical joy

“Lizard Boy” has been lauded as “a sure sign that the American musical is as novelistic, vibrant, fearless, and joyous as ever” by the  San Diego Reader. A completely fresh and original show with wonderfully inventive staging” by  BroadwayWorld.com.  The  San Diego Union-Tribune  called it “innovative, funny, and wildly entertaining” as well as “smart, tight, heartwarming, hilarious, and filled with theatrical surprises.”

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley returns to in-person performances, launching its 51st season with the new indie folk-rock musical, Lizard Boy. A cast of three exceptionally talented actor/singer/musicians play myriad instruments from cello to guitar, piano, ukulele, and even kazoo in telling this fresh comic book-infused tale set in modern-day Seattle. With an infectious original soundtrack (already capturing more than one million streams on Spotify), “Lizard Boy” is directed by Brandon Ivie with book, music, and lyrics by Justin Huertas.

“Lizard Boy” will be presented from until October 31, 2021 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (500 Castro Street, Mountain View). Single tickets (starting at $30) will be available September 8, 2021 and 2021-22 subscriptions are available now. For more information the public may visit TheatreWorks.org or call (650) 463-1960.

“Lizard Boy” will also be offered via video streaming, allowing patrons to watch either from home or in-theatre and making these shows accessible to additional audience members — including those unable or unready to attend in-person. More information will be available soon at  TheatreWorks.org.  Media sponsor for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s 2021/2022 season is the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGATE. (AJPress)

(TheatreWorks recently announced COVID-19 health and safety requirements and will require proof of vaccination and masks for all staff and audience members entering any of its theatres, offices, and public spaces through December 31, 2021. Patrons must present a vaccination card, a photo of the card, or a digital vaccine record via myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov with matching ID. Patrons who are legally exempted from being vaccinated must reach out to the TheatreWorks Box Office at least four days prior to their performance. All attendees must remain masked while indoors.)


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