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 https://www.seattlerep.org/.