BWW Review: ArtsWest's THE LAST WORLD OCTOPUS WRESTLING CHAMPION and the Promise of Greatness
Back in 2015, the Seattle theater scene was abuzz with a brand-new musical premiering at the Seattle Rep from local wunderkind Justin Huertas called "Lizard Boy". I even remember seeing a workshop of it in 2013. Since then the Lizard has gone on to perform all over, including San Diego and New York, and Huertas has gone on and produced even more new musicals including an adaptation of "Howl's Moving Castle" at Book-It (which is coming back again this season) and a new one coming to the Seattle Rep next year, "Lydia and the Troll". And now, over at ArtsWest, Huertas has given us another of his signature quirky love stories with the World Premiere of "The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion". And with his new show we can easily see that the promise of greatness abounds, not only with Huertas and this show but within the show as well.
First let me see if I can explain this story without giving it all away. We meet Grace (Corinna Lapid Munter), a fierce Filipinx woman with a very interesting past including when she won the final World Octopus Wrestling Championship (a real thing that used to happen in Seattle). But after that final bout Grace did something that angered the Undertow (the spirits of the water) who receded the tide, so the competition could never happen again. Cut to 18 years later and Grace, along with her kids Todd and Lee (Christian Quinto and Rachel Guyer-Mafune), must deal with the repercussions when Lee finds Grace's long hidden World Octopus Wrestling Champion trophy, awakening the Undertow to try and reclaim what Grace had stolen.
The show is part sci-fi/fantasy, part love story, and part gay coming out story, a triumvirate so prevalent in many of Huertas' shows giving him a singular voice. And with that singular voice he also has a singular style, so very different from other musical theater out there. Like the distinctive William Finn, he tends to employ some repetitious elements that shouldn't work, but when coming from their respective styles, it does. And boy, does Huertas know how to tell a story with his songs. They not only effortlessly move the story along but each one is almost a tale unto themselves making for a very rich evening of storytelling.
Not to say the show is perfect. It does get a little heavy handed in the dialog and exposition, especially at the top but once past it, the show manages a beautiful rhythm thanks in large part to director Mathew Wright and Music Director Claire Marx. Plus, I must mention Steven Tran whose arrangements and orchestrations bring out such a vibrant and varied tone to the piece as well as Alyza DelPan Monley's choreography which went beyond simple movement and turned several fight sequences into exhilarating dance.
But a show is nothing without a great cast and here is where the Promise of Greatness continues to come through. Guyer-Mafune continues to impress, and in very diverse roles, with her killer voice and tremendous spirit. And her chemistry with Porscha Shaw as her found soulmate is palpable. Shaw too keeps popping up in stellar things around town making me recognize her Promise of Greatness as she continues to astound with her presence, commitment to any role, and now showing off her stellar voice. The rest of the cast I may not have seen in as many things but they all display that Promise as well making this a sublime cast. Munter delivers the fiercest and most devoted Mom I think I've seen, and she completely sells each moment with her fantastic voice making the audience ache for her situation. Her big solo number is completely and wonderfully heartbreaking. And don't think for one second that Quinto as Todd and Tyler Rogers as David are simply there for filler, as each share a delightfully quirky love story of their own and manage it with humor and heart, but they also, like much of the cast, pull double and triple duty as the narrators of the piece as well as the recurring voices of the Undertow making their roles not only crucial but unforgettable.
The show, minor qualms aside, is yet another joyful, and off the beaten path love story from Huertas, solidifying his voice and his place as a fantastic musical theater storyteller. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give ArtsWest's production of Justin Huertas' "The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion" a "shining Promise of Greatness" YAY+. I, for one, can't wait to see what comes next for and from Huertas and can't wait for the day we can all talk about how we saw the beginnings of his career when he's receiving oodles of acclaim on Broadway and around the world.
"The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion" performs at ArtsWest through July 28th. For tickets or information contact the ArtsWest box office at 206-938-0339 or visit them online at www.artswest.org.