Jeffrey Meek as The Stranger

Apocalypse Now: 'Lizard' checks into the Morrison Hotel during a trip through the mind of an original L.A. woe-an

By James Herbert
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
May 18, 2000

A few stanzas into the deeply weird poem and song cycle that is Jim Morrison' s "Celebration of the Lizard," the late singer and lyricist for the Doors recites a tale of a man waking up with a strange creature groaning beside him / Sweat oozed from its shiny skin.

James Douglas Morrison -- mystic, pinup, rock legend, rock casualty -- was some kind of strange creature himself. He lived fast, died young (at 27, in 1971) and left either a good-looking corpse or, if you believe the "Jim lives!" crowd, no corpse at all.

And so, fittingly, it is a strange creature now being birthed at the San Diego Repertory Theatre -- a "musical fable," as Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse calls it, inspired by and created from the legacy of Morrison and the band.

The Rep' s "Celebration of the Lizard," beginning previews Saturday, uses Morrison' s poem (which appeared on the Doors' 1970 album "Absolutely Live") as its narrative skeleton.

But it fleshes out the beast with 30-plus songs from the Doors' catalog, in the service of a story about a wandering band of survivors in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles and the anti-hero who tries to lead them out of the chaos.

Morrison' s fanciful creature isn' t the only one sweating.

"This is by far the most ambitious project we' ve done in the history of the Rep," with a budget twice as large as the previous record, says Woodhouse, who is directing the play.

The music component alone is a huge undertaking. O-Lan Jones, the show' s musical director and arranger, says, "I feel as though we' ve constructed a whole country of music, with gangplanks and cities and freeways and things like that. It feels three-dimensional."

Joel Lipman, the writer, producer and driving force behind "Lizard," points out that the production also has 16 cast members who portray some 40 to 50 characters, while a five-man band performs for all but three to four minutes of the show.

The opening sequence, Lipman notes, is 12 to 15 minutes of full-tilt action and music. "It' s ' L.A. Woman,' it' s ' Blood on the Streets,' it' s five or six songs that the cast is literally running through: running, leaping, rolling, fighting, jumping."

If the core of "Lizard" -- the trippy, cryptic, reptilian-obsessed poem itself -- is not the most accessible source material for a book musical, the songs surrounding it could help the show appeal to a broader audience.

Theater-goers can expect to hear such Doors classics as "Light My Fire," "Riders on the Storm" and "People Are Strange," along with such one-off works as "Peace Frog" -- the mere mention of which brings a giggle of delight from Jones ("I can' t wait for you to see that one!").

For the show' s creative team, though, the tune that seems to capture most vividly both the message of the Doors and the theme of the production is "Break on Through."

"Break on through to the other side. Dare to imagine a world you cannot see," says Woodhouse. "One of the messages of the ' 60s was to cast off your old ways; don' t look above you, if you will, in terms of the political hierarchy for answers. Leap over it; tear it down; imagine something completely different."

Lipman speaks of the chaotic setting of the play, and of the characters' struggles to free themselves from it, in similar terms.

"Break on through that landscape to something," he says. "That' s what the play is. I literally get goose bumps thinking about that, because it' s like (the Doors' ) whole catalog of writing and music fits into that one thought."

The lyric' s symbolism even extends to what the play' s creators hope will be its future; they openly aspire to get "Lizard" to Broadway, if it is a success in San Diego.

"We have great hopes and desires, once it breaks through, that it will have a healthy and long life on the other side," says Woodhouse of the play' s prospects. "That' s certainly a desire and a goal. But at this stage, we' re deep in the birth process."

Armed actors

"Does anybody need a weapon?"

At the Rep' s rehearsal space on a recent afternoon, the birth process Woodhouse refers to is focused on a scene where two key characters -- the Stranger, played by Jeff Meek, and Antonio, played by the one-named Baruti -- confront each other.

Woodhouse is surveying the ensemble, making sure each member has some kind of fighting implement -- a stick here, a bone there, even the odd skull.

On the director' s cue, the dozen or so actors chant and dance, as if engaging in some inscrutable tribal rite. Then, Meek and Baruti issue challenges to each other in song.

"Lizard," as described by Lipman, Woodhouse and Jones, is a highly physical production. That, they say, makes the martial-arts-trained Meek an ideal fit for the pivotal part of the Stranger.

When the concept of "Lizard" was coming together in earnest last year, the Rep hosted several staged readings, with Billy Zane ("Titanic") and Grace Jones in the leads. (Other names floated for the Stranger role included Kevin Bacon and Lou Diamond Phillips.)

"Those guys were great," Lipman says of Zane and Jones. "Billy was great. And with no disrespect to him, Jeff Meek -- in baseball, they call it a pitch that' s in your wheelhouse.

"This is where he lives. He' s a martial artist, he' s a singer, he' s an actor. He' s a stage actor, which is really important.... I think we' ve been blessed to get someone with those tools."

The play also has the blessing of Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who has helped guide "Lizard" since he and Lipman first talked about the concept some 10 years ago.

Lipman, a veteran music and TV producer, had long toyed with staging a Doors-based play. In college, he and a friend mounted a "black box" production of "An American Prayer," another of Morrison' s poetic works.

A decade later, when he was helping Manzarek produce a record of poetry and jazz, Lipman asked the former Door about the meaning of "Lizard."

"Ray said, ' That was Jim' s apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles.' And literally, three nights later I sat up in bed and said, ' That' s the story.' "

The eventual casting of Karole Foreman, a San Diego native and Rep associate artist, as Queen of the Highway opened the way for the production to make a home at the theater.

Lipman already had met O-Lan Jones, a composer who runs an L.A. musical-theater company called Overtone Industries, through a mutual friend who impressed upon Lipman that "Lizard" would need a musical director.

"The truth of that comment," says Lipman, "was like saying, ' If you can' t swim, don' t jump in the water.' "

And as the hugely ambitious "Lizard" nears its debut, the two seem to be not only keeping their heads above water, but keeping their sense of humor.

Asked over breakfast if they followed any special rituals to immerse themselves in the world of the Doors, Jones shoots back with a laugh: "Well, there was the time we killed the goat. But I don' t remember any other rituals."

Lipman jumps in right on cue: "Goat meat, by the way, is a lot sweeter than anyone thinks."

On the topic of staying true to the Doors' legacy, though, Lipman is a bit more serious. He says he expects Manzarek and Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger to attend the show' s opening, although drummer John Densmore is a question mark.

"One of the biggest rewards for me really will be, and is, that they like this and that it speaks to them," he says.

As for the uninitiated: "People who don' t know the music and think, ' Oh, it' s just that loud rock ' n' roll stuff?' It' s not, man.

"In this world, in this play, it' s beautiful."

This article is courtesy of The Union-Tribune Publishing Company.

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