“The Happiest Man on Earth,” by Mark St. Germain, is an Eloquent Tale of Brutality Turning to Love of Life

Kenneth Tiger in The Happiest Man on Earth

There are some stories so brutal and emotionally draining that you fear hearing them.

The thing about such painful memories is that when expressed as art they can become tales that are so eloquent you are not only thrilled that you experienced it, but you want everyone to share in the experience.

That is how I felt leaving the world premiere performance of “The Happiest Man on Earth” playing at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA. I hope the play has a long life after it closes here on June 17.

And, if it does, I hope it stars Kenneth Tigar who gives one of those performances in which actor and character merge to the point where you cannot tell one from another. Rarely have I seen an actor so inhabit a character than Tigar does with Eddie Jaku.

“The Happiest Man on Earth” is adapted from the memoir of the same name telling the story of Jaku’s experience in Nazi concentration camps.

Though those experiences take up the bulk of the play, the take away is how Jaku could let go of his hatred of so many people who thrived on committing horrid inhumane acts, as well as exterminating 6-million Jews.

By the way, the biography was published when Jaku was 100 years old.

Because Tigar, directed by Ron Lagomarsino, tells of Jaku’s beatings in such an articulate manner, the loss of his parents, his many attempts to escape and the soul crushing betrayals and other in unimaginable experiences become real when he speaks.

Certainly you are affected by the horrors he experienced. But even as you are often in despair wondering how human beings can be so cruel to each other, you also are in awe at the tenacity and will-to-live exhibited by Jaku, and others like him.

You are also in awe of the devotion and love of family and friends that Jaku experienced. His courage and generosity of spirit makes his story inspirational on many levels.

However, if there is a disappointment in the work, it is that we learn little of Jaku’s post-war life. He tells us he became the happiest man on earth, and we believe it. Yet, it seems to come like a bolt from the blue when his first son was born.

What is missing is how the man used the rest of his life as a philosopher of peace, love and happiness.

The play by Mark St. Germain is simply brilliant. He is a familiar voice at Barrington Stage having had 14 of his plays staged there. This, to me, is his finest play. He condensed years into a speedy 90-minutes, which likely explains the omission of Jacu’s later day accomplishments.

Again, condensing might explain moments which seem confusing and lacking in detail. One minute he’s naked and ill, the next he has money for bathing. However, what is important is the playwright never loses the essence of Jaku’s torturous life or his indomitable spirit.

St. Germain not only makes vivid the attempted extermination of a culture, he emphasizes the reason such atrocities could happen.

While condemning the specific actions of the Nazis, St. Germain makes it clear that the regime was successful because it bred fear and distrust among friends and neighbors while giving the populace a common enemy to hate.

It should go without saying the Holocaust must never be forgotten. St. Germain and Tigar make it clear the economic and social problems that permitted the Holocaust to happen seem dangerously contemporary.

In the play, a world-wide distrust of other nationalities is shown when Belgians refuse to help the escapee because he is German and possibly a spy.

Jaku realizes he is rejected in Belgium because he is German. But in his native country the Germans deny his origins and define him as a Jew. This taught him that any reason for cultural hatred is artificial.

For the rest of his life Jaku lived by his father’s guide to life. “Family first. Family second, and last. And everyone is family.”

“The Happiest Man on Earth” plays at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA through June 17. For tickets and schedule go to barringtonstageco.org

Read the full article by Bob Goepfert here.

Broadway-Bound The Wiz Finds Its Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow

A Strange Loop‘s Kyle Ramar Freeman will “Be a Lion” in Schele Williams’ new production of the ’70s musical.

By Logan Culwell-Block for Playbill.com

Kyle Freeman, Phillip Johnson Richardson, and Avery Wilson

The upcoming Broadway-bound touring revival of Charlie Smalls’ The Wiz has found its Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow. Kyle Ramar Freeman, soon to be starring in A Strange Loop in London, will be the mean ole Lion opposite Sharper star Phillip Johnson Richardson as the Tinman and The Voice‘s Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow. More casting will be announced in the coming weeks.

Schele Williams is directing the new production, set to launch at Baltimore, Maryland’s Hippodrome Theatre September 26. 2023 Tony Award nominee Amber Ruffin will provide additional material to William F. Brown’s original book. The gig is Ruffin’s second theatrical outing, following her work co-writing the Tony-nominated book to Broadway’s current Some Like It Hot with Matthew López. Joseph Joubert will provide music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements, with scenic design by Hannah Beachler, costume design by Sharen Davis, lighting design by Ryan J. O’Gara, and wig design by Mia Neal. Casting is by Tara Rubin Casting.

Kristin Caskey, Mike Isaacson, Brian Anthony Moreland, Ambassador Theatre Group, and, as recently announced, Kandi Burruss and Todd Tucker are producing.

The Wiz premiered on Broadway in 1975, transforming L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s novel into an all-Black “super soul musical,” as it was originally billed. A surprise hit of the season, the musical won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Score, Featured Actor in a Musical (Ted Ross), Featured Actress in a Musical (Dee Dee Bridgewater), Choreography (George Faison), and Direction of a Musical and Costume Design (both Geoffrey Holder). The score’s “Ease On Down the Road” and “Home” became breakout hits, and original star Stephanie Mills was propelled into stardom. The musical made the jump to the big screen in 1978 with a film adaptation starring Diana Ross, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson, and, reprising his Broadway performance as the Cowardly Lion, Ross.

The musical got the live TV treatment via NBC in 2015, a production that was initially announced as being Broadway bound following the television premiere. That revival, which would have been produced by Neil Meron and the late Craig Zadan, never materialized.

For a full itinerary of the upcoming tour, visit WizMusical.com.

The Fremont Troll stars in a new play by musical theater duo Justin Huertas and Steven Tran, directed by Ameenah Kaplan

By Roxanne Ray – May 18, 2023 – for the IE Examiner

When the International Examiner last checked in with playwright and actor Justin Huertas and composer Steven Tran, they had collaborated on a pre-pandemic musical entitled The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion and then had worked on a video concept album called Swimming during the lockdowns of COVID-19. Now, the pair is teaming up again to present a World Premiere musical at the Seattle Rep: Lydia and the Troll.

Our lead character Lydia is a singer-songwriter who is dissatisfied with her life, which motivates her to take some new risks, and not necessarily in a good way. “The villainous troll is something that lives inside all of us,” Huertas said. “It’s the voice that tells you that you don’t look good enough, you don’t write well enough, you’re not cool enough.”

And Huertas can relate. “We’re pinpointing that time in Lydia’s life where that voice is at its loudest, which is absolutely something I’ve gone through,” he shared. “The more time that passes and the more distance I have from that time in my own life, the more I understand how I got stuck there and how I pulled myself out.”

Tran also feels a kinship to Lydia. “The protagonist Lydia and I are both music producers, and we both have a deep appreciation and respect for electronic and pop music,” Tran relayed. “Inspired by the multimedia aspects, my vision for the music is to bring studio-quality pop and electronic production to Justin’s songs.”

Of course, since this is Seattle, the troll in the show is not just any troll, but is of course the Fremont Troll. “How many cities can boast a magical, mythical troll living under the interstate?” Huertas mused. “The concept of how that troll got there has been on my mind for years.”

But this time, Huertas and Tran expanded their creative team, to include co-creator and director Ameenah Kaplan. “Ameenah and I met working on a show out at Village Theatre, and I fell in love with her artistry and leadership,” Huertas recounted. “When we were searching for a director for Lydia & the Troll, it truly felt like destiny.”

Tran agreed. “Ameenah is incredibly inspiring as a director, and it’s her multimedia film vision that helped originally inspire my desires for this pop electronic score as well,” the composer said. “The rehearsal room feels vivid and alive, and the art being made is a very cool thing to be a part of.”

Sarah Russell, Kirsten DeLohr Helland, Ameenah Kaplaand in rehearsal for Seattle Rep’s The Other Season reading of Lydia and the Troll (2019) • Photo by Angela Nickerson

Just as important, Kaplan also empathizes with Lydia’s journey. “Ameenah is an incredibly physical director, and a large part of our collaboration has been figuring out the visuals and the physical life of this musical,” Huertas said. “It’s very rare that I have a director as imaginative and collaborative as her, and she’s brought a lot of her own life experiences to Lydia.”

That physicality has dovetailed with Tran’s goal for the music. “I wanted to highlight the kinetic and transformative themes of the script with a score equally as electrifying and modern,” he said. “My vision is to authentically bring the sound of the recording studio to the stage with pre-recorded and mangled background vocals, samples and foley, and hyper-produced electronic tracks, to create a musical tapestry that I am sure will contain sounds and genres that so far have not graced the musical theater stage.”

Working together, the trio has found the development of this new work to be organic. “My experience growing up here as an artist, growing through art, growing through relationships, all of that kind of told me what this story is about,” Huertas said. “I think when people meet Lydia, they’ll see those moments of growth that both Ameenah and I have gone through, and those are the changes we’ll see Lydia experience even as she’s hunted by a troll.”

This evolution is paralleled by Huertas and Tran’s progress as a musical-writing duo. “With each new project, it seems that we are continuing to push our boundaries and grow together as a musical team, both in terms of artistic scope as well as scale,” Tran said. “We’ve never done anything ‘traditionally,’ and Lydia and the Troll feels like a culmination so far of this sonic experimentation and artistic growth.”

Lydia and the Troll runs from May 5 to June 4 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer Street, Seattle. 

Fantastic: ‘Lydia and the Troll’ Directed by Ameenah Kaplan, Represents Real Seattle

By W. Barnett Marcus | May 17, 2023 | for Real Change News

The actor playing Lydia sits on stage in front of a toy-sized car holding a microphone connected to an amp.
Lydia (Sarah Russell) warms up with a vocal performance as she live streams during “Lydia and the Troll” by Justin Huertas.

Six years ago, as they were driving me across town on a sunny day, my friend turned to me and asked, “Can I show you this song?” As soon as “A Terrible Ride” from Justin Huertas’ 2015 musical “Lizard Boy” began, the entire soundtrack soon became a staple in my life. 

What I didn’t learn until recently is that, six years ago, Huertas began crafting something new. A firebrand of the Seattle-themed musical, Huertas set intersectional stories on the streets of his city’s premiere theaters with “Lizard Boy” and 2019’s “The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion.” At long last, following a 2020 pandemic-related deferral, “Lydia and the Troll” continues this tradition in full bloom, this time at Seattle Rep and with Huertas joined by music supervisor and producer Steven Tran. 

In a captivating opening number performed by Jane (Janet Krupin), a centuries-old myth of the troll emerges: Every 20 years, a troll must elicit a deep truth from a potential new host in order to switch bodies and start the timer over. The mind and soul of the original owner conveniently transfer to the body of an 18-foot-tall troll, the form Jane is trying to avoid retaking. The telling of the myth is layered with a vocoder on Krupin’s voice, an effect which is broadly utilized throughout the show in addition to vocal layering from other cast members out of sight. Mixing human harmony and electronic backing creates a distinct thumbprint for “Lydia” that joins a conversation on incorporating EDM elements to musical theater while thematically supporting Lydia’s (Sarah Russell) aspirations as a music producer. 

For a 90-minute performance, I was not sure what to expect from character dynamics and individual arcs, but one beauty of a small cast is that, even in a short time, everyone has room to show their true colors. Pete (Adam Standley), Lydia’s boyfriend, is on the verge of proposing marriage but demonstrates in just the span of a car ride how what appears like love on the outside can be built on codependent harm. All this tension is embellished by the creative implementation of seat adjustment to match the pace and intensity of Pete’s driving. Lydia’s uncertainty in her relationship becomes physically realized and an emotional handhold for Jane to seize. 

Condensing and synthesizing Lydia’s and Pete’s relationship dynamic while balancing their individual paths to sobriety from alcohol is made entirely possible through the weight of honesty mandated by Jane, who takes advantage of both of their self-defined weaknesses for her own gain. Without anyone with her best interests at heart by the middle of the show, it’s up to Lydia to take control of her life, her self image and her own heart-wrenching moment of self-healing. 

Six years after I first encountered it, rehearsals for “Lizard Boy” began off-Broadway with Prospect Theatre Company for a June run. “Lizard Boy” did some globetrotting since its inception, and, in the buzz of the Rep lobby after the opening night of “Lydia,” I heard the hopes of a repeat. 

I wonder how a show like “Lydia” could scale up to audiences not steeped in the ever-present mystery of the Fremont Troll. As someone from the city, a show about a lifelong landmark felt spiritually nourishing; elements of “Lydia” describe Seattle life in ways that deviate from the Starbucks-and-rain clouds homogeneous approach of popular media. Besides location relevance, “Lydia” interrogates anti-Black perspectives that greatly affect artists in Seattle, adding another layer to concepts of Seattle’s political stereotypes while centering the discussion on Black joy first and foremost. Highlighting Black joy on the Seattle stage is a throughline I’ve greatly enjoyed this past year in ACT’s “Choir Boy” and the 5th’s “The Wiz,” now followed by “Lydia.” 

There is a hint to the history of the Fremont Troll as we know it hidden in the story of “Lydia and the Troll.” The Fremont Troll was designed initially as hostile architecture in response to homeless residents in 1990 and ’91. When Jane marches into Lydia’s life, she creeps into the space Lydia carved out through music for herself and begins dictating how that space should be presented and used, at times leading to Lydia’s positive self-discovery but at others to her loss of autonomy. Jane comes off as hypnotic, impulsive and incredibly vibrant at all times. Her confidence and dignity keeps the tension of “Lydia” high from the very beginning. Lydia, grounded and patient in comparison, contrasts Jane so much as to expose her insecurities through their differences. It doesn’t take long before Jane interrupts Lydia’s songwriting grind and begins a chain of events that upset Lydia’s creative process and sense of self. 

All this talk of the main cast isn’t to underplay in any way the work of the ensemble, Guy Garrison and Sophia Franzella. Having seen Franzella before in Pony World’s “Not/Our Town,” I was thrilled to catch her Rep debut, especially in such emotive physical command of a large mask displayed in shadow. The puppetry work in “Lydia” is by far my favorite design element. Presented in similar fashion to Indonesian wayang kulit — handheld shadow puppets built of intricately cut wood that move on rods and hinges — puppet crafter Garrison’s creative signature gives “Lydia” a seat of its own at the table of puppet-involved shows. When shadow isn’t implemented, the same surfaces hold projections (designed by Bryce Cutler). 

Suffice it to say, Justin Huertas has done it again: “Lydia and the Troll,” in its electronic glory, is a must-see this spring. A matinee could pair well with a visit to the Fremont Sunday Market, where you can visit the Troll and wonder what truths you’re holding back from even yourself.

W. Barnett Marcus is an actor living in Seattle.

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, seattlerep.org