Justin Huertas recounts the “amazing and supercool and crazy” opportunity he was given by the late Jerry Manning to create “Lizard Boy” at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Justin Huertas knows he’s a lucky guy.
To go from acting in youth shows at Village Theatre to a national tour with a Broadway musical to having your first full-length play commissioned and premiered at a high-profile theater while still in your 20s?
Fortune smiled on Huertas, but he’s also made his own luck with acting flair, musical talent and a fertile imagination.
By Justin Huertas. Previews Tuesday, March 31, opens Wednesday, April 1, and runs through April 26, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $16-$52 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).
Though superheroes figure in his new musical play “Lizard Boy,” which debuts at Seattle Repertory Theatre this week, Huertas credits human mentors for helping bring this “live graphic novel” to fruition. And talking excitedly about the project, he sounds thrilled and amazed by his creative journey.
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It germinated several years ago, when after scattered but memorable acting stints at the Rep, ArtsWest and Seattle Shakespeare Company, and years playing cello, Huertas was approached by Seattle Rep artistic director Jerry Manning with a golden opportunity.
“I was working at Starbucks and complaining my career wasn’t going anywhere,” he says. “Jerry told me, ‘‘You need to be onstage!,’ and asked me to call him. So I go in for a meeting and he tells me he’s been thinking about something I might do. And I said, ‘Whatever thoughts you have — yes!’”
Manning envisioned Huertas acting (and playing cello) in an original show — that didn’t yet exist. “Jerry didn’t know I’d be capable of writing anything, I’d only written a couple one-acts in college at PLU [Pacific Lutheran University]. He took a chance on me creating something good, and that was amazing and supercool and crazy.”
To get things rolling, Manning asked Huertas to keep a diary while working as a musician in a grueling bus-and-truck tour of the musical “Spring Awakening.”
“I had these entries that said ‘I’m some place I’ve never been before and it sucks.’ ” Seattle Rep artistic staffer Andrea Allen, another adviser on the project, “would prompt me — ‘If you’re stuck write about your family. Or your history with the cello. Or your coming-out story.’”
The latter, according to Huertas, was pretty boring. “When I told everyone I was gay they said, ‘Yeah, we know.’ So to spice things up I added superpowers. I’m a big comic-book nerd, and I wrote about a boy who was bitten by a dragon, and he grew this lizard skin, and no one wanted to be his friend.”
That clicked for Manning, also an avid comic-book fan. During weekly brainstorming sessions, “Jerry brought in the first 100 issues of The Fantastic Four, from his collection. That blew my mind. We just began creating this new comic-book fantasy world together.”
Eventually “everything came together. We realized it wasn’t a one-man show, but a three-person show, with everyone playing instruments — or as Manning dubbed it, “Marvel Comics meets chamber operetta.” (Actor-musicians Kirsten deLohr Helland and William A. Williams join Huertas in the current cast.)
A monster emerging from the ashes of Mount St. Helens (to the strains of Huertas’ Ed Sheeran-influenced folk-rock tunes) is pure fiction. But Huertas lost his “Lizard Boy” mentors to real-life dramas: Allen died in 2012 due to breast cancer, and Manning last spring, after complications from heart surgery.
“What happened to Jerry and Andrea is much more important than any show. Jerry was Obi-Wan Kenobi to my Luke Skywalker, guiding me and seeing things in me I didn’t see in myself.”
Manning’s successor, Braden Abraham, insured “Lizard Boy” would open this season, and Brandon Ivie came aboard to direct it.
Huertas says he and Ivie are still tinkering with the show, and “just the other day we turned a solo into a duet.” May the force be with them.