By Robert Sokol
Special to The Examiner
Justin Huertas admits that you don’t have to reach too deeply into the metaphor bag to connect with “Lizard Boy,” the musical opening the 51st season of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Mountain View this month.
Trevor, the lead in the three-character, is covered with scales. He’s also going on his first date but gets sidelined into a mythological hero journey which, ostensibly to find world salvation, is really about — you guessed it! — finding himself.
What the then first-time playwright-actor-composer didn’t realize at first was how personal the story was, for himself, and surprisingly to him, for others. “I gave him lizard skin not really thinking about the metaphor,” Huertas recalls.
It was 2012, and the 22-year-old Seattle resident had just landed his first commission to write a musical for Seattle Repertory Theatre that, at the minimum, placed him on stage playing a cello. That’s all. Everything else was up to him, and, no dis to Tina Turner, he decided that we did indeed need another hero.
“I wanted to create a gay hero character whose conflict and trauma didn’t surround his gayness or his queerness. I didn’t want him to battle any kind of homophobia or internalized homophobia. So, he is gay, period, and he also has lizard skin, and that’s the source of a lot of his struggle.”
Huertas speaks with an infectious, pause-filled, laughter-sprinkled cadence most currently reminiscent of Annie Murphy of “Schitt’s Creek.”
“As we were developing it, I was like — OMG, I am writing about my experience growing up brown in primarily white spaces and feeling like no one likes me, understands me, wants to know me. It took too long for me to figure out that that’s what I was doing. New writer, right?”
It didn’t take fans very long to coalesce into a loyal Lizard community.
“We gave ourselves ‘The Lizards’ as a name,” Huertas explains, “like for our band. As our fans started growing online, we kind of extended our name to everyone. We want everyone to be in the band because these people are connecting with Trevor’s story. I’m not gonna gatekeep. I’m just gonna say, if you want in, you are in. You’re a part of it. You are a lizard.
“I’ve heard from people of all different backgrounds and races and genders who say they connect with something in the show. In San Diego, there was this old woman who came up to me after the show and said, ‘I loved your play. It made me think of what my scales are.’ That was amazing to me.
So truly, yeah.
An African proverb states that it takes a village to raise a child, and “Lizard Boy” has had a caring and committed group of co-parents in director Brandon Ivie and the cast that includes Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland and William A. William.
“I wanted to hone it to its final evolution with these people,” says Huertas of his “Lizard” bubble. “Kiki and Bill have been part of this since a workshop in 2013. A year after that, Brandon joined as director. We all had been friends before, so when we first came together, it felt like a garage band. Like a bunch of friends putting some ideas down and seeing where they go. Now, every time we gather, it truly always feels like getting the band back together.
“Once we’re in a rehearsal room, and we all have our instruments, and we play like one song together, it feels like we’re coming home. It’s so wonderful.”
The music is also eclectic. In addition to the commission-specified cello, the orchestra of three plays a range of instruments from piano, guitar and keys, to egg shaker, ukulele and kazoo. Many of the latter instruments are played by Helland.
“I knew I wanted kazoo in there somewhere,” recalls Huertas. “Then, in the first workshop in 2013, I put a ukulele in Kiki’s hands, and she was like, ‘Oh God. Yep. OK. I can do this.’ In 2015, I was like, ‘Do you think you can play some keys for us?’ and she was like, ‘Oh God. Just tell me where my fingers should go, and I’ll just memorize it.’ Then we added piano.” He also added a second guitar, a glockenspiel, and a melodica. “It’s been really funny every time. It’s like, ‘Oh, what if Kiki plays one more thing?’ and she’s always game, and she always masters it.”
The hero theme in “Lizard Boy” continues in other Huertas plays like “Lydia and the Troll” and “We’ve Battled Monsters Before,” which opens in November at ArtsWest in Seattle.
“I grew up with comic books and Disney movies. I loved Spiderman, X-Men, Power Rangers and the Ninja Turtles. I didn’t realize until later in life how formative those were for me. I learned lessons about how to be a good human from these superheroes. “
“It wasn’t until later in life, maybe around college, that I realized, ‘Oh yeah, how different would my life have been if I had looked up to heroes on TV that weren’t white, heroes that were Filipino even, or at the very least brown or Black. So when the opportunity came to write myself a show, how cool would it be to make myself a superhero?’ Then, for any young person who is looking for a brown or Asian or Filipino superhero to look up to, at the very least, I’m right there.”
IF YOU GO
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 31
Tickets: In-person $30 to $95. Pricing subject to change. On-demand video streaming available for $25.
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org