jakub | June 5, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Justin Huertas, Theatrical Superhero

Justin Huertas in “We've Battled Monsters Before” at ArtsWest. (Photo by John McLellan)

Move over, Marvel: Justin Huertas has his own superhero franchise, and its fan base is growing.

This week Huertas brings his phantasmagorical musical Lizard Boy to Off-Broadway’s Theatre Row, scheduled to run June 1-July 1, in a production by by Prospect Theater Company. While it marks the New York debut of this busy writer-composer-performer, Huertas has already amassed a considerable contingent of enthusiasts, and not just in his Seattle home base. Lizard Boy, which had its premiere at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2015, has only drawn strength in the intervening years from warmly received engagements in California (at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto and San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre) and in the U.K. (at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe). One British critic called the show, in which Huertas himself plays an isolated young Filipino American with green, scaly, lizard-like skin, “a parable that understands that joy and wonder carry more weight than preaching.”

As disarming and genial in person as he is onstage, the puckish, prolific Huertas has been too busy this spring to get anxious about his first tango in Manhattan. “This year it feels like I’m having a trifecta,” he said. Indeed, the New York bow of Lizard Boy is hardly the only iron Huertas has in the fire. After pandemic-related delays, the Seattle-based Huertas went to Washington, D.C., to work on the horror-musical The Mortification of Fovea Munson, adapted by Mary Winn Heider from her zany novel for youth. Commissioned by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, with music and lyrics by Huertas, it premiered at the Kennedy Center in March. And the new musical Lydia and the Troll, written and scored by Huertas, is currently having its debut at Seattle Repertory Theatre, also after a pandemic-related postponement.

All of Huertas’s shows are intimate, handmade spectacles. And all dabble in the paranormal, yet also serve as quests for self-affirmation by humble, human, humorous protagonists of color who gain access to their own superpowers—almost by accident.

This is definitely the case with Trevor, the lead character in Lizard Boy, whom Huertas portrays while armed with several of the musical instruments he plays nimbly (cello, guitar, ukulele). Trevor, whose skin condition was caused by an unfortunate run-in with a fire-breathing dragon on a volcanic mountain (Washington’s famous Mount St. Helens), is so insecure about his appearance he rarely leaves his home. But he gradually expands his world when he meets another misfit (played by William A. Williams) on Grindr, and soon gains enough confidence to battle for, you know, just the fate of the universe, alongside a scarifying nightclub singer (Kiki DeLohr) who possesses magical talents, natch.

Kiki DeLohr, Justin Huertas, and William A. Williams in “Lizard Boy” at Seattle Rep.

Melding fantasy, apocalyptic warfare, cartoonish images, and engaging pop tunes with sardonic humor and a disarmingly heartfelt sense of innocence and yearning, Lizard Boy charmed the late Seattle Rep artistic director Jerry Manning when he first saw an early draft over a decade ago. In a way, it was a case of kindred spirits: Manning was an avid collector of vintage comic books, and Huertas has been inspired from an early age by heroic figures in contemporary comic books. “I grew up with X-Men, Power Ranger, Ninja Turtles,” he noted. “I really loved those superheroes; I had all their action figures.”

Huertas’s interest in the paranormal took another turn when, as a theatre student at Seattle’s Pacific Lutheran University, he enrolled in a Christian theology class that delved into ecclesiastical texts.

“I didn’t grow up as a religious person, but the class was like studying those cartoon myths I loved,” he recalled. “They’re all really stories that try to teach you how to be a good person. So then I took Christian Theology Two, Religions of Southeast Asia, Sex in the Bible—it was fascinating, and I wound up minoring in religion.”

As he honed his performance skills acting in student shows, Huertas nevertheless worried that good roles would be hard to come by after graduation. “I thought, because of the way I looked and sounded, I’d only be considered for side characters—the best friend, the comic relief, the mute servant—which I definitely played,” he recalled. “I thought that was the only door open to me.”

It was Seattle Rep’s Manning who encouraged Huertas to create his own mini-musicals. “Jerry said to me, ‘You should write yourself a superhero role. Who says you can’t do that?’”

Emboldened by a 2010 commission from the Rep, Huertas began creating Lizard Boy in earnest from “my core, on instinct, just as a story I wanted to tell. It wasn’t until we got into rehearsal that I understood what I was doing. I was really writing about my experience growing up brown in white spaces.”

During the first public reading of the show, “I was shaking,” Huertas recalled. “I felt like, ‘Oh my God, people won’t be able to relate to this unless they really know me. It’s not going to make any sense to them.’”

No worries: From its earliest phases, Lizard Boy was embraced by audiences as something new and special, and it especially caught on with younger patrons. Braden Abraham, who after Manning’s untimely death in 2014 succeeded him as Seattle Rep artistic director, observed the response and continued to encourage Huertas to see the Rep as an artistic home. Now head of Writers Theatre in Chicago, Abraham believes Huertas is inventing his own theatrical idiom.

“There’s an ethos for creators from the Pacific Northwest, that they will not be pinned down by genre,” Abraham posited. “They evade neat labels. I don’t think Justin does it deliberately; it’s just the way he’s wired. He has a million ideas, an irresistible voice.”

Janet Krupin and Sarah Russell in “Lydia and the Troll” at Seattle Rep. (Photo by Bronwen Houck)

On the path to its successful 2015 world premiere at the Rep, Lizard Boy happened to dovetail with a new era of wildly popular live action and animated superhero movies from Marvel, Disney, and other studios. “The world has changed so much, and superheroes are like a huge thing now,” said Huertas. “These movies are making millions of dollars, and they’re less niche than they used to be. And people are ready to accept these kinds of stories onstage. If you say this creature came from inky goo, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s fine’!”

He has continued to work on a compact scale with small casts and live music, exploring the emotional struggles of his characters while featuring low-tech but effective acts of mythical derring-do. Lydia and the Troll follows a young Black woman’s musical and personal challenges, as an evil spirit trapped in stone tries to steal her thunder and identity. And in his We’ve Battled Monsters Before, presented at Seattle’s ArtsWest Theatre in 2021, Huertas portrayed one of a pair of siblings guided by their sage grandmother to learn more about their Filipino heritage (one song cites recipes for traditional Pinoy dishes), and to war with threatening beasts in The Whisper, a fantastical realm. (Monsters is loosely based on the 16th-century Filipino epic poem Ibong Adarna.)

A rare live theatre run in the thick of the pandemic, We’ve Battled Monsters Before earned high marks from most reviewers. On the website Drama in the Hood, Jordan Naini praised it as “a masterful exploration of Filipino identity, spiritualism, and folklore.”

Said ArtsWest artistic director Mathew Wright, who staged the show’s premiere, “I think Justin’s work answers the concern Joseph Campbell had, that we were no longer creating new myths for our time. Justin’s musicals create a recognition of self in the other, the way the great myths do. He accomplishes this through inviting the audience into huge leaps of imagination, and then rewarding them with deeply sophisticated music and lyrics masquerading as Top 40 pop hits.”

Where Huertas’s idiom has room to evolve, in my opinion, is in the scripting, which can sometimes be convoluted, secondary to the music, and favor sentimental endings. But many who see his shows find them meaningfully mystical tales for intimate spaces. And though theatre is his focus for now, Huertas said he hopes he can apply his talents to other mediums as well.

“Film is definitely on my mind,” he said. “As a kid I liked to draw, and wanted to become an animator. I’ve always wanted to write for Disney, DreamWorks, do stop-action animation. I felt I had a good skill set for that, and it’s next on my list.”

But first, he’ll take Manhattan. Lizard Boy, Abraham says, “is where it all started. It’s a coming-of-age pop-rock musical. It’s a superhero’s tale. It’s a modern myth. It’s an exploration of identity.”

And for Justin Huertas, it is the beginning of his own epic quest as a theatrical auteur.

Misha Berson (she/her) is the former theatre critic of The Seattle Times and the author of several books on theatre, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination. She is currently a freelance writer and teacher, and a frequent contributor to American Theatre.

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