The “monster” of Lake Worth became a local legend, its sightings stirring up noise on a smaller scale than the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, but still enough to make headlines. But there have been actual sightings of The Lake Worth Monster, an autobiographical musical that also became local legend at Hip Pocket Theatre.
Johnny Simons and his late collaborator Douglas Balentine created the work for Simons’ master’s thesis at Texas Christian University in the early 1970s. It later emerged in the early seasons of Hip Pocket Theatre, co-founded by Simons, his wife, Diane, and Balentine in 1977. It was revived in 1989, but has only been talked about since — until now.
Hip Pocket’s two-year-long reconstruction of the work, which closes the group’s 40th season, is an absolute must for anyone curious about the theater’s aesthetic or musicals that play outside the lines.
Cowboy Billy (Brian Cook, wide-eyed and emotionally invested) is the stand-in for Johnny Simons as a young man, an artist and dreamer with a weakness for women and penchant for fueling his inner demons of loss, grief and other side effects of being human.
These demons manifest as the metaphorical monster, and because this is theater, the monster makes his presence known — first as embodied by longtime HPT actor Grover Coulson, and eventually as a magnificent oversized puppet, manned by three people (Jeff Stanfield, Rebo Hill and Rick Gutierrez) and designed by New York puppeteer Basil Twist.
Simons’ timeline in this story is before Hip Pocket, before Diane. He falls for Belstar (Frieda Austin), and is seduced by Luna Moon (Carmen Scott) and, after divorce, New Orleans seductress Rue Royal (Delace McMahan).
He never loses poetry (“A spider moon snakes into the sky”) or his quest for answers (“The mastery of life/The mystery of death”), whether that be in art, drink or something bigger, something spiritual.
The two-act work, with intermission (unusual for Hip Pocket Theatre these days), is told almost entirely through song, with five seated performers (Don Arnett, Patti Littlefield, Quentin McGown, Peggy Bott Kirby and Elysia Ann Worchester) giving vocals to both the songs and the dialogue. The actors, who also include James Maynard as a narrator of sorts, Thad Isbell as Grandpaw and the ensemble (Austin, Scott, McMahan, Stanfield, Hill and Christina Cranshaw), pantomime or dance accordingly.
Simons often uses the disembodied-voice device in tandem with pantomime, and here it adds layers to the narrative dreaminess.
Balentine’s music, which pulses with blues and rock, was reconstructed (by his brother Bruce), and is played with verve by the foursome of Joe Rogers, Darrin Kobetich, Chris White and Eddie Dunlap. A couple of times, the voice of Balentine, who died in 2008, is played in a recording. Film and projections show images from the 1989 Lake Worth Monster, Simons’ illustrations of the monster and of other monsters (Godzilla).
Maynard designed a few marionettes doubling as characters portrayed by live actors, as if to zoom out of the earthbound flesh. But it’s Twist’s title creature that receives the biggest oohs and aahs, and rightly so. It’s frightening and, like the entire show, magical.
For someone who has never seen the show, this revival makes the wait worth it. Even those who did catch it will probably be amazed at the scale of this production, reflecting everything that has made Simons and Hip Pocket jewels that deserve continual support.
With all of the elements coming together in what is an obvious labor of love, The Lake Worth Monster is visually and emotionally stunning. Catch it now, because there probably won’t be another sighting.