|The cast of The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion (John McLellan)|
Through July 28, 2019
For a few years now, I’ve been attending readings and productions of new musicals around town. I’ve been fortunate to attend Village Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals for many summers, now, where at least five new musicals try to capture momentum, and attended most of their new Beta Series readings of fully produced but still in-development new works.
I love theater in general, but the icing on my love affair cake is musicals. And frankly, with all that said, I think that Justin Huertas is creating new musicals that are so original and so “him” that no one else can match his freshness and “nowness”! I’m not a Gen-Xer or whichever generation he is, so in some ways, he doesn’t write “for me.”
But I feel inside what he’s doing and I think he is on the verge of becoming the break-out star of musical theater – nationally – that some have been predicting. His latest musical, The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion, clearly has raised his bar of sophistication in terms of storytelling and musicianship. But even typing that title onto this document makes me smile because it’s such a randomly odd title!
And then I find out that there really was a sport called octopus wrestling and that Puget Sound did have world championships. Mind blown.
Justin, himself, in the program notes, references his growing up with cartoon superheroes and action figures, and in this musical, he creates a badass superhero mother (Corinna Lapid Munter) with now-grown children who has a black belt or two and a secret trophy for being the World Octopus Wrestling Champion! Why she feels she needs to keep that a secret is the main issue in this musical.
The beginning of the musical, currently on stage at Artswest in an appropriately moody production helmed by Mathew Wright, is a bit murky, and the intro song The Undertow, is a bit chewy and hard to swallow. It lays out a lot of the exposition for the entire musical and is the least successful song. Even so, if you pay attention, you do get both a sense of the atmosphere of what will come and the layout of the story. The atmosphere is definitely the most successful part.
Grace, the mother, has an older son, Todd (Christian Quinto), and a younger daughter, Lee (Rachel Guyer-Mafune). Todd knows Grace’s whole secret, and reluctantly has kept that secret from his sister all these years. Todd has been instructed to hide the trophy where no one will find it. Somehow, it becomes the linchpin that could open the door to something that could threaten Lee.
Justin’s writing often focuses on the outsider, the misfit, or on the one who feels outside or ill-fitting, even if that person doesn’t look like they wouldn’t fit in. Lee thinks something about her is different, though she doesn’t appear to be any different than anyone else.
It’s only when she makes a magical connection with Nia (Porsha Shaw) that strange things begin to happen to both of them. Only Justin, I think, could make a song entitled Tentacle Hand!
The other character in this five-hander is a young marine biologist who happens to be an expert in octopuses (Tyler Rogers)! Who would have thunk it!? When the whole musical is about octopuses, it just so happens that an expert wanders by and inserts himself!
Much of the music involves the cast moving in and out of “narrator” mode, where they all help each other tell the story. The five cast members are all terrific singers and actors and Munter is completely convincing as Grace, that badass mother.
Puget Sounders will recognize every Pacific Northwest reference, since the locale is here. The musical is rich with local color and places and everyday events. The UW campus is prominently featured.
This is a piece that demands your imagination as well as attention. People turn into other beings but no one on stage actually changes costumes into any strange-colored being. It’s description and song lyric and imagination. In many ways, that is more powerful and it makes you help create the story for yourself.
Lex Marcos’ stripped down set of a large rock-colored platform and some movable octagons is as simple as can be. Similarly, Zanna King’s lighting is not flashy or colorful, but helps create that moody, emotional feel.
It’s a feel-good story that will call to Gen-Y-or-Z-or-whatever-ers. Or maybe to anyone who ever feels out of place and awkward and wonders if they fit in.