Seattle Rep’s ‘Lydia and the Troll’ Directed by Ameenah Kaplan, has Catchy Tunes, Emotional Story

May 16, 2023 at 6:00 am – Review by Dusty Somers, read the full article from The Seattle Times here

Adam Standley and Janet Krupin in “Lydia and the Troll” at Seattle Rep. (Bronwen Houck / Seattle Rep)
Adam Standley and Janet Krupin in “Lydia and the Troll” at Seattle Rep. (Bronwen Houck / Seattle Rep)

There’s a malevolent force lurking in the shadows in Justin Huertas’ new musical, “Lydia and the Troll,” aiming to steal the abilities and derail the plans of our not-so-intrepid protagonist. Non-spoiler alert: It’s the troll. But it could also be smothering insecurity, and if you think these concepts are tied together by flimsy metaphor, you probably haven’t seen a Huertas show.

“Lydia and the Troll,” now onstage in a world-premiere production at Seattle Rep, bears all the traits of the Huertas brand: a whimsical fantasy world populated by all-too-human characters, irrepressibly catchy numbers that don’t skimp on the lyrical complexity, and a light touch that tells stories with capital-E emotions, minus the sentimentality.

It’s been an eventful near-decade for Huertas since Seattle Rep first commissioned “Lydia and the Troll” in 2015, shortly after staging his breakthrough “Lizard Boy.” “Lydia” was announced, then pulled from the Rep’s 2019 season, then announced again for what would be a COVID-thwarted 2020 season. In the meantime, Huertas staged several original shows at ArtsWest, premiered the new musical “The Mortification of Fovea Munson” with collaborator Steven Tran at the Kennedy Center, and landed an off-Broadway production for “Lizard Boy,” opening in June.

But at last, “Lydia and the Troll” is here, directed by co-creator Ameenah Kaplan to draw out the grace notes amid the propulsive pacing.

Sarah Russell as Lydia in “Lydia and the Troll” at Seattle Rep. (Bronwen Houck / Seattle Rep)
Sarah Russell as Lydia in “Lydia and the Troll” at Seattle Rep. (Bronwen Houck / Seattle Rep)

Like “Lizard Boy,” this show is essentially a three-hander. Lydia (Sarah Russell) is an aspiring music producer whose shot at a lucrative songwriting grant hinges on her ability to pen a new tune before the showcase at Columbia City Theater — tomorrow. Her boyfriend Pete (Adam Standley) — who, like Lydia, is recovering from alcoholism — feels their connection drifting, even as he makes bigger plans for the future. And then there’s Jane (Janet Krupin), who sees Lydia’s music livestream and feels an instant connection.

But Jane is no ordinary fan. She’s not even human.

Janet Krupin as Jane in “Lydia and the Troll” at Seattle Rep. (Bronwen Houck / Seattle Rep)
Janet Krupin as Jane in “Lydia and the Troll” at Seattle Rep. (Bronwen Houck / Seattle Rep)

Huertas excels at economically elucidating his fantasy realms and their rules, as he does here with Jane’s opening number that sets the scene: She’s a troll who’s taken over a human’s body, but she only gets 20 years before she must find a new vessel. Time’s almost up, and if she can’t persuade a new victim to share a deep secret, she’ll revert into a hulking, hideous creature.

Fortunately for one of them, Lydia isn’t great at keeping secrets. And as she struggles to come up with ideas for her songwriting showcase, she’s drawn to Jane’s seemingly dependable listening ear. Russell’s performance acutely accesses Lydia’s self-doubt — about her talent, her relationships, the way her Blackness will be perceived by industry gatekeepers — and strikingly contrasts it with her assured, sterling singing voice.

Janet Krupin as Jane and Sarah Russell as Lydia in “Lydia and the Troll” at Seattle Rep. (Bronwen Houck / Seattle Rep)
Janet Krupin as Jane and Sarah Russell as Lydia in “Lydia and the Troll” at Seattle Rep. (Bronwen Houck / Seattle Rep)

Huertas’ songs (with music supervisor Tran providing additional music) for Lydia are anthemic indie pop numbers with minor-chord energy. “I think most of my love songs are about breakups,” Lydia admits to Jane.

For Pete, the love songs he sings are more like veiled threats, an emo-inflected ballad suddenly flooded with car-crash imagery and an ode to the future with Lydia built around indulging their worst impulses. Standley’s blithe physical comedy chops sit uncomfortably next to Pete’s toxic, manipulative tendencies.

Sarah Russell as Lydia and Adam Standley as Pete in “Lydia and the Troll” at Seattle Rep. (Bronwen Houck / Seattle Rep)
Sarah Russell as Lydia and Adam Standley as Pete in “Lydia and the Troll” at Seattle Rep. (Bronwen Houck / Seattle Rep)

Less complicated but more fun: the villain, and Krupin is clearly enjoying herself, bringing a slinky aura and a powerhouse voice to her songs’ dark synths and dubstep beats. Sure, she’s evil, but kind of likably so?

The show’s fantastical elements are brought to life by Guy Garrison’s cutout puppets, silhouetted against panels to depict the troll’s true form or used to amp up action sequences like a late-night Lime bike chase across town. Performed by puppeteers Garrison and Sophia Franzella, these elements add a wonderfully tactile quality to a staging that’s otherwise heavily reliant on projections. But they can feel a little incidental to some key scenes, with transmogrifications and body swaps largely left to the imagination.

This is in keeping with Huertas’ preference for the meaningful over the spectacular, though a late appearance by a local landmark certainly qualifies as some well-earned spectacle. It’s the kind of climax that seems tailor-made to be accompanied by a happily-ever-after swell of passion. If that’s what you’re expecting, you probably haven’t seen a Huertas show.

“Lydia and the Troll”

Book, music and lyrics by Justin Huertas, directed by Ameenah Kaplan. Through June 11; Seattle Rep, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $57-$87; 206-443-2222,

Stage Review – Lydia and the Troll (Seattle Rep) Directed by Ameenah Kaplan

Stage Review – Lydia and the Troll
Presented By: Seattle Rep (Leo K. Theatre), Seattle, WA
Date Reviewed: Saturday, May 20, 2023
Reviewed By: Greg Heilman

When you enter the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Rep for a performance of Lydia and the Troll, it’s quite apparent that you’re in for a good time. Other than an ominous countdown clock projected on the stage backdrop, there’s immediate audience interaction by way of scrolling messages below the clock on the same screen, at times asking the audience to clap, or do certain things, just to see if they’re “paying attention”. It’s quite fun and is a great way to get the audience in the spirit of the show that they’re about to see. I wasn’t sure what to make of Lydia and the Troll by way of the title alone, nor did I know what that clock projected on the stage was counting down to, but to say I was pleasantly surprised is a severe understatement. Everything about Lydia and the Troll is bigger than what you might expect. This world premiere musical, created by Justin Huertas, co-created and directed by Ameenah Kaplan, and with additional musical composition and direction by Steven Tran, is a true wonder. It’s a story of one woman’s struggle to find and accept herself, while battling the demons (both literally and figuratively) that are out to subvert her by exploiting the self doubt that seems to hold her back at every turn.

Sarah Russell plays Lydia, a recovering alcoholic, songwriter, and aspiring music producer. She is in a dead-end relationship with Pete, played here by Adam Standley, and is experiencing a severe case of writers block, needing to write one more song for a performance in front of a group of critics, who are determining whether she is worthy or not of the grant she has applied for. Lydia is defined by her self doubt, hiding her true individuality behind a series of wigs (designed here by Cherelle D. Guyton), which she dons to perform her songs, the wig she chooses depending on both her mood and the image she wants to portray on any particular night. Then there is Jane. Played by Janet Krupin, Jane is a troll, yes, a troll. Not the kind you might expect if you’ve been under the Fremont Bridge or have watched the Harry Potter movies, but one in human form, who, in order to prevent herself from becoming said troll of traditional visage, needs to find a human body to inhabit. Each habitation lasts a finite period of time, so she needs to change vehicles every so often. As her time for transition approaches, Jane’s search for a new human to inhabit takes her to Lydia, for in order to move into a new body, all Jane needs is for that person to confess something, to provide a personal revelation to her, and what better mark than someone with so much self-doubt and who looks like she needs a friend to open up to. It’s all quite well described in the production, though some of the nuances provide many of the wonderful twists and turns found in the show. Once Jane spies Lydia and identifies her as an easy mark, she seductively begins the process of getting closer to her target.

Lydia and the Troll is a wonderful and creatively told tale. It’s set in the Leo K. Theatre at the Seattle Rep, the smaller of the building’s two auditoriums, but director Ameenah Kaplan has this venue bursting at the seems, with actors using all of the space in and around the audience, and through Bryce Cutler’s amazing set and projection design, which ostensibly extends the stage out into the seating area, providing an immersion that would be limited had the production remained strictly on the physical stage. I love to see creative ways of representing big things in a small space, and throughout, Lydia and the Troll finds inventive methods to tell this story. The show utilizes puppets, backlit on screens on stage to represent movement over long distances, the puppets designed by Guy Garrison and handled by Guy and Sophia Franzella. There is also some wonderful use of light from designer Robert J. Aguilar to accentuate many of the scenes, whether through backlighting, or complementing the nature of individual characters, case in point his use of reds and greens to represent the darkness in Jane. Lydia and the Troll is a show that moves along smartly, with no downtime, and is one enjoyable moment followed by another. It clocks in at almost precisely 90 minutes, but it doesn’t even feel that long.

Everything comes to play in Lydia and the Troll. Justin Huertas’ story itself is traditional in the sense that it is largely about self-discovery and self-appreciation, but the creativity in which it is being told is unique. It’s funny, and it’s poignant seemingly at the right times within the timeline of the show. It touches on a number of other subjects as well, though perhaps with more subtlety. On top of Lydia’s battle with her own demons around self-worth, there is her’s and Pete’s struggle with sobriety. There’s also the fact that she’s a black woman, who is locked within herself trying to find a way to impress a group of white judges to win her grant. Lydia and the Troll is also a sincere love letter to Seattle, with references a plenty, and for my part it does a wonderful job of capturing the essence of the city, as abstract as that might seem. I would be interested, though, in seeing how this could be adapted for other regions or settings. Justin’s songs are all fantastic, many catchy, some humorous, and a few poignant, like Phases, in which Jane walks Lydia through her past transitions from host to host, sung wonderfully by Janet Krupin and performed creatively through a choreography with mannequins. Then there is the exquisite Black Hair, in which Sarah Russell’s Jane begins to come to grips with self doubt. Musically, this is the high water mark of the show, the song so moving and so wonderfully performed.

As a predominantly three person show, though there is a significant contribution by puppeteers Guy Garrison and Sophia Franzella in support of the story, the majority of the focus is on each of the actors. I’ve seen Sarah Russell in some of her previous roles, but this feels like a breakout, as bright as she shines as Lydia. The transformation from someone filled with trepidation about herself and her abilities to someone discovering who she is and becoming comfortable with it is so well portrayed that it feels like Sarah was made for this role. She’s got an amazing singing voice and such a stage presence, a confidence that belies her character’s lack thereof, that makes this performance enthralling. Janet Krupin is just as good in her turn as Jane, the troll in human form that is looking at Lydia’s self doubt as an entry point for her less than innocent intention. The role of Jane is dark and seductive, and Janet nails both, engaging with Sarah’s Lydia as well as the audience in a way that makes it believable that her character could survive as long as she has, moving from host to host. Rounding out the leads is the aforementioned Adam Standley as Pete, also a recovering alcoholic, but doing what he can to make his failing relationship with Lydia work. Adam’s Pete is funny, sad, and just as much in denial of himself as Lydia is. Pete has his own battles to fight, and Pete’s representation of both his outside and inside personas, and demons, is very well done indeed. As good as the cast is individually, there’s also a chemistry afoot, and that extends to the supporting cast, the puppeteers as well, even through their limited interactions with the leads on stage. Costuming by Danielle Nieves helps bring these characters to life as well, through Lydia’s and Pete’s more casual attire contrasted with Jane’s leather with fur trim, put together to represent the sinister nature of that character. Everything and everyone works so well together.

Lydia and the Troll is one of those shows that is so much more than expected. It’s a musical treat, a love letter to Seattle, and a whole lot of fun. This story of self-discovery, uniquely told through the lens of an aspiring songwriter who comes in contact with a troll, grabs the audience and doesn’t let go through all of its ups and downs, its catchy and wonderfully crafted songs, it’s superlative performances, and excellent storytelling. It’s so good, so entertaining, and so fun, and its run has been extended through June 11. Good thing, too, because this is one of those rare shows that I can see myself coming back to time and again.

Lydia and the Troll has been extended through June 11, and plays on the Leo K. Theatre stage at Seattle Rep. For more information and tickets, visit

VIDEO: First Look at Seattle Rep’s LYDIA AND THE TROLL, Directed by Ameenah Kaplan

Get a first look as Seattle Rep closes their 2022/23 season with Lydia and the Troll, a brand new musical by local playwright and composer Justin Huertas (Seattle Rep: Lizard Boy).

Set in neighborhoods across Seattle, this fantasy and folklore-inspired musical is about a Black, female, aspiring music producer and is grounded in Seattle’s noted landscape and landmarks.

The creative team features Justin Huertas (Book, Music & Lyrics); Ameenah Kaplan (Co-Creator & Director); Steven Tran (Additional Music, Music Production & Music Supervision); Guy Garrison (Puppet Creator); Elisa Money (Associate Music Director & Conductor); Jessica C. Bomball (Stage Manager); Bryce Cutler (Scenic/Projections Designer); Danielle Nieves (Costume Designer); Robert J. Aguilar (Lighting Designer); Erin Bednarz (Sound Designer); Cherelle D. Guyton, MBA (Hair/Wig & Makeup Designer); and Malie Fujii (Assistant Stage Manager.)

Throughout the run of this show, Seattle Rep will host a series of events including a Teen Night (June 2, 2023) in partnership with TeenTix for which teenagers can purchase $5 tickets to experience the show. Seattle Rep will also host a Composer and Theatemarkers Speed Networking Event and Post-Show Actor Talk and on May 25, ASL-interpreted performance on May 27, Open Captioning on May 4, and more. Learn more here >>

Single tickets and season subscriptions are on sale now online at or by calling the Patron Services Office at 206.443.2222.

Review: CHINGLISH, Directed by Jeffrey Lo, at SF Playhouse

Cast and Creative Team Set for SINGIN' IN THE RAIN at South Bay Musical Theatre

SF Playhouse is all in with their take on Tony Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist David Henry Hwang‘s Chinglish: stylish set and lighting, excellent direction, and a strong ensemble cast. While there’s plenty of comic moments in Hwang’s sardonic commentary on language barriers and the effects of those miscommunications, there’s also thoughtful observations on fidelity, corporate and judicial corruption, and even nationalism.

It’s easy to find humor in a foreigner struggling with a second language evidences by countless 1930’s films with racist stereotypes, but here Hwang elevates that conceit on an intellectual level with American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barret Austin) struggling to nail down a big business deal in China and failing miserably through miscommunications in the boardroom and bedroom.

Cast and Creative Team Set for SINGIN' IN THE RAIN at South Bay Musical Theatre
Translator Zhao (Xun Zhang), prosecutor Li (Sharon Shao), American sign maker Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin), and Judge Xu Geming (Phil Wong) take a selfie in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish,” performing May 4 – June 10.

Translators are the comic foils here as they misinterpret what’s being said. We see the results in supertitles managed by Spenser Matabung projected on to the lovely paper screen set designed by Andrea Bechert. Sharon Shao and Phil Wong are the translators who add their own personal commentary to their work. Matthew Bohrer plays Peter Timms, a teacher posing as a consultant to Cavanaugh who speaks fluent Mandarin.

Cast and Creative Team Set for SINGIN' IN THE RAIN at South Bay Musical Theatre
Vice minister Xi Yan (Nicole Tung) and American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) discuss the deal over dinner in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish,” performing May 4 – June 10.

The well-constructed plot has Nicole Tung’s Vice Minister of Culture assisting Cavanaugh’s deal for multiple reasons: to expose her corrupt boss and get her husband promoted, and to have an affair with Cavanaugh. Alex Hsu is the corrupt minister Cai Guoliang in a touching performance.

Jeffrey Lo, who directed SF Playhouse hits The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin and Hold These Truths works his magic once again with his staging and attention to the sharp dialogue and exaggerated language failures. Poking fun at Chinese American relations makes Chinglish continually prescient and totally enjoyable.

Chinglish continues through June 10th. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling 415-677-9596.

Article by Steve Murray for Broadway World.

Review: S.F. Playhouse’s ‘Chinglish,’ Directed by Jeffrey Lo, is plump to bursting with jokes about what gets lost in translation

Vice minister Xi Yan (Nicole Tung, left) and American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) discuss a deal in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

The best comedic writers are like symphony composers. They prick and pique your ears. They establish conditions that make you crave exactly what they’re going to give you — tonic chord, development, discord, resolution — with the perfect number of rat-a-tat beats preceding a ker-splat punch line. One more syllable, and the whole thing would fall flat. 

To witness the translation-heavy scenes in David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish,” which opened Wednesday, May 10, at San Francisco Playhouse, is to be in comedy’s equivalent of Davies Symphony Hall. In an Ohio sign manufacturer named Daniel (Michael Barrett Austin), hawking his wares to Chinese officials Cai Guoliang (Alex Hsu) and Judge Xu Geming (Phil Wong), Hwang has cultivated scenarios so ripe and plump they seem to burst with jokes about mistranslation and cultural differences.

Judge Xu Geming (Phil Wong, left), translator Zhao (Xun Zhang), prosecutor Li (Sharon Shao), American sign maker Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) and vice minister of culture Xi Yan (Nicole Tung) attempt to communicate in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

There’s the way translators carry on with a conversation of their own, leaving out the monolingual Daniel, who in his entitlement to having his comprehension needs centered looks like a wanderer weathering a blizzard. There’s the delicious dramatic irony enabled by rapid-fire supertitles: We know exactly why, beats later, everyone is still somehow talking about Chicago, even as the hapless Daniel can only scrape the bottom of his improv bucket to come up with one more thing to say about it. 

Then there are the scrumptious pitfalls of employing an inexpert translator. Here local performer Sharon Shao proves herself a hero in the role of the mousy Miss Qian. It’s not just that her character translates “We’re a small family firm” into “His company is tiny and insignificant,” itself an accidental insight into all that business jargon conceals. Shao delivers the line with a nerd’s quiet self-satisfaction in her accomplishment. Her subtext is so clear and rich it’s like a full companion piece to Hwang’s script. In one moment, you can read “Wait, what did I say?” on her face. In the next, Miss Qian is absorbing with panic all the building tension in the room. And Shao makes the exquisite choice to translate not just text but emotion, though of course Miss Qian goes too far (a volcano where perhaps just a bit of emphasis was called for).

Translator Zhao (Xun Zhang, left), prosecutor Li (Sharon Shao), American sign maker Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) and Judge Xu Geming (Phil Wong) take a selfie in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

In the show, directed by Jeffrey Lo, the one lingua franca is grift. Everyone has some kind of false front, racket, ulterior motive that Hwang hints at then reveals, each with impeccable craftsmanship and timing. 

He achieves all this without miring his comedy in cynicism. In “Chinglish,” each character is both con man and openhearted dreamer. Under Lo’s direction, each admires and sees herself in the others’ hustles, pivots, confessions and lusts. Likewise, each thirsts to be seen. Speaking the same language isn’t necessary; in fact, here it’s helpful not to. One can be more honest that way — and why bother with words when you can just pour yourselves into each other’s eyes?

American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin, left) shares a moment with vice minister Xi Yan (Nicole Tung) in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

Still, “Chinglish” suffers from a “So what?” problem. It backpedals right when it seems it might make a larger point about cross-cultural relationships, whether for business or pleasure. Moreover, its most poignant reveal, from savvy negotiator Xi Yan (Nicole Tung), doesn’t benefit from being written only in broken English then dissipated into a shrug. The whole show seems torn between romantic and cynical takes on human nature without having something to say about that ambivalence, other than, “… and everything turned out fine.”

Yet at the end of the play, as the white guy shuffles off and a speechifying Xi Yan and Judge Xu Geming address crowds, at least one point is sharp: The monolingual American does not end at the center of this international story.

Article by Lily Janiak for the SF Chronicle.