Writer-director-lyricist James J. Mellon and composer Scott DeTurk's quirky musical fable combines familiar but durable story devices. It's a wistful coming-of-age odyssey with shades of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Simultaneously, it's a bittersweet tale of an odd-looking but kindhearted misfit, recalling thematic elements of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Bat Boy: The Musical. In the emotional journey of Lucius "Lizard" Simms, a reptilian-featured orphan, dark psychological underpinnings disqualify the vehicle as family fare. Yet there are considerable rewards in Open at the Top Productions' stylish world premiere staging.
Where this production shines is in several performances and the splendid scenic (Craig Siebels), costume (Shon LeBlanc), and lighting (Luke Moyer) designs. Playing a key character who is less than a paragon of virtue--a traveling actor with a penchant for wine, women, and angry outbursts--the versatile James Barbour projects charisma, and his soaring voice is resplendent. Sweet-voiced Laura Philbin Coyle also scores solidly as his partner in artistic endeavors and love. There are impressive supporting turns, particularly from Janet Fontaine as Lizard's fickle guardian and Bob Morrisey in dual roles. As Lizard, David Eldon has good moments, but he needs to do more in the way of facial expressions and body language to establish the boy's awkwardness and despair. He seems too much in control from the outset for the arc of his story to have a dramatic payoff. Nor does he look terribly odd; a nose prosthetic appears to be the sole attempt to make him appear freakish.
The score is bolstered by lilting melodies and artful lyrics. Buoyant numbers such as "Just Imagine" and "A Tempest in the Air" (from a hilarious show-within-show sequence, an offbeat interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempes) provide great fun. On the debit side, the songwriters tip the scale too far toward repetitive odes to optimism--mellowed-down Jerry Herman--stating and restating gee-what-a-wonderful-world-lies-ahead sentiments. Another area calling for cuts is Mellon's intermittently engaging book, adapted from Dennis Covington's 1991 novel. At an unwieldy 150 minutes, the episodic narrative feels disjointed. This was clearly a challenging page-to-stage transfer, and the book and score don't yet coalesce into a smoothly flowing whole. This charming musical nonetheless shows great promise, and astute retooling could carry it along to a rosy future.
Presented by Open at the Top Productions at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Jul. 21-Sep. 3. (818) 508-7101. www.thenohoartscenter.com.