David Eldon, Laura Philbin Coyle, and James Barbour in Lizard
(Photo © Michael Lamont)
David Eldon, Laura Philbin Coyle, and James Barbour in Lizard
(Photo © Michael Lamont)
With a little bit of work, Lizard could become one of those musicals that are constantly performed in regional theaters throughout the U.S. Based on Dennis Covington's award-winning novel about an outsider who finds himself and his family, this show at the NoHo Arts Center will speak to both adults and youngsters. Its composer and lyricist, James J. Mellon (who is also the show's director) and Scott DeTurk, both possess palpable talent.

Unfortunately, the piece is a bit too episodic, and some of its themes are rather heavy-handed. Running over two and half hours, it sometimes feels like an extended Afterschool Special. But the talented cast, headed by Broadway veteran James Barbour and Los Angeles favorite David Eldon, draw the audience into the tale even when its Dickensian scope and structure threaten to sink the proceedings.

As the show opens, the disfigured teenager Lucius "Lizard" Simms (Eldon) has been sent to live at a camp for retarded boys by Miss Cooley (the excellent Janet Fontaine), who had raised him since birth. There, he retreats even further into himself, until the arrival of a troupe of vagabond actors captures his attention. Eventually, with the help of the troupe's leader Callahan (Barbour), Lizard runs away with them to star as Caliban in their production of Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Like Huck Finn, Lizard discovers humanity's strengths and horrors on his journey. Wise but underestimated, he takes responsibility for the well being of his neighbors -- most notably, two abused African-American siblings whom he meets in the woods -- and learns to forgive those he loves. But the musical should spend more time and energy on what Lizard needs to become a fully functioning adult, and it should show us the steps he takes in that direction. Furthermore, the character of Miss Cooley -- relegated to the opening and final scenes -- should have been given more stage time so that, when Lizard encounters her again at the end of the show, we'd have a better sense of why she made the choices she made.

Many of the songs are lyrical, including the rousing "You're Going There Too" and "Just Imagine." The entire score reflects the deep south of the 1970s, complete with harmonica. A few of the ballads don't work well, such as "Look To The Dawn," which means to be as hopeful as Ragtime's "Wheels Of A Dream" but is not particularly stirring.

Mellon has staged the show very well at the tiny NoHo Arts Center. One might think that a cast of 13 whould barely be able to stand still on this stage without falling into the audience, but Mellon maneuvers them seamlessly, giving the audience a sense of traveling across the American South. Thanks to set designer Craig Siebel's ingenuity and Mellon's direction, we see shacks and caves and Chinese restaurants. Shon LeBlanc's costumes place us in the fashion-victimizing late 1970s, and Luke Moyer's lighting is award-worthy.

Barbour lends his strong voice and cocky persona to Callahan, who functions as both the play's narrator and Lizard's protector. Eldon's Lizard is compelling; with a lovely singing voice (showcased in a "Set My Spirit Free") and a speaking voice that invokes empathy, he is the soul of the piece. The rest of the cast is equally good, including Laura Philbin Coyle as Sally, Callahan's girlfriend, and Melanie Ewbanks, who provides comic relief as theater owner Wanda.

As it now stands, Lizard is a show with great potential rather than a full-fledged winner, yet it's further proof that homegrown musicals can be the future not only of Los Angeles theater but regional theater as well.