“Lizard,” receiving its world premiere at the NoHo Arts Center, is the newest addition to resident company Open at the Top’s growing list of ambitious musicals. A faithful adaptation of Dennis Covington’s well-loved novel, tuner, coming after “Dorian — the Musical” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” is artistic director James J. Mellon’s baby: He directed, co-wrote the music and lyrics with Scott DeTurk and penned the book. In spirit, if not in execution, it’s every bit as sweeping and panoramic as anything on Broadway.
David Eldon plays Lucius, a deformed Louisiana teen of uncertain parentage. At first, he comes off as a Southern-gothic eccentric straight out of the mind of Faulkner or Capote — a boy “who spends most of his time watching his blue-tailed skink eat wasp larvae.”
Miss Cooley (Janet Fontaine), Lucius’ guardian, bundles him off to a state-run institution for boys with mental deficiencies, hoping she can land a man more easily when she’s unencumbered by his weird presence.
It’s soon clear there’s nothing wrong with Lucius’ mind. Dubbed “Lizard” by the other boys, he’s frightened and alienated by his new home, spending most of his time in a tree clutching the box that harbors his beloved skink.
Then the theater comes into Lucius’ life, and he finds his true calling. A ragtag band of actors presents a second-rate pirate adventure at the institution. Lucius is fascinated, and later climbs his tree to spy on the stars of the troupe, Callahan and Sally (James Barbour and Laura Philbin Coyle).
Callahan, a shifty opportunist, sees profit in Lucius and persuades him to join his company; Callahan thinks the boy will make the perfect Caliban for his production of “The Tempest.” The disastrous staging allegorically echoes Lucius’ story on many levels.
Along the road to Lucius’ self-discovery and maturity are many — perhaps too many — adventures and side trips. At more than 2½ hours, “Lizard” feels padded; it could stand to lose a reprise here and a tangential scene there.
All the same, there’s plenty to like. Mellon and DeTurk’s songs can be pedestrian and overly simple, but at their best they’re stirring, anthemic and completely true to the story’s spirit.
The large cast is anchored by several impressive performances, including Barbour’s tortured but likable Callahan, Coyle’s cynical yet kindly Sally and Eldon’s Lucius — a character who easily could be milked for pathos, but thankfully isn’t.
The show needs more fighting room than it gets here. Craig Siebels’ multitiered set is shoehorned into too small a space and is called upon to represent too many locales.
Other elements work better: Luke Moyer’s subtle and always moodily appropriate lighting; Shon LeBlanc’s costumes, which capture both the story’s ’70s time frame and the poor rural South; and Robbie Gillman’s crisp musical direction of the small but polished unseen band.
All in all, “Lizard” is a noble if problematic first attempt at transforming a worthy source into musical theater. With a hard-nosed editor, more resources and a larger stage, it could find its place in the small but lucrative circle of musicals suitable for teens as well as adults.