Apodaca: Staging a comeback

William Martinez, right, is the dad in "Ivy + Bean: The Musical." With him are Melody Butiu, left, as the mom and Elia Saldana, center, as Bean. Martinez has two roles in the production.
(Courtesy South Coast Repertory)

There’s a scene in the musical “Ivy + Bean,” a South Coast Repertory production based on the well-loved children’s books, in which the actors playing the parents of one of the title characters mime an entire conversation.

It’s an inside joke with the audience — made up largely of kids between the ages of 4 and 10 — meant to convey that the strict “mom” is reminding the easier-going “dad” that he needs to lay down the law to their rambunctious daughter. It’s an effective moment that provokes giggles from the tykes in the crowd, and knowing laughter from their parents.

What the audience members don’t know is that the scene is also rich with irony because the performer who plays the father has an unusual history with nonverbal communication. Indeed, his story of overcoming a difficult childhood to reach success and fulfillment on the stage reads like an episode from “Glee.”

William Martinez, a Colorado native who also plays a 7-year-old boy in the SCR production, was an only child raised for many years by his deaf mother after his parents split when he was 3.

Even though Martinez could hear normally, his mom shut out the hearing world. They had no TV, radio, recording devices or even a telephone. Music was never played at home, and sign language was their primary form of communication. What’s more, they moved so often that Martinez found it difficult to bond with other children. Shy, lacking confidence and disconnected from his peers, he spoke little and his grades suffered.

But when Martinez was in seventh grade, he had an epiphany when a theater troupe came to his school to perform a historically themed musical.

“It just absolutely fascinated me,” he said.

Something clicked inside him, but Martinez didn’t fully understand it until the following year, when he transferred to yet another new school and learned that the only elective still open was choir. He overcame his shyness and tried out, and from then on, “It was like the fog lifted,” he said. “I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

The choir teacher became a beloved mentor who encouraged Martinez to nurture his talent and follow his passion. He started spending all his free time in the music room, and began making friends. At 13, he moved in with his hearing father, and his grades improved dramatically.

Martinez grew close to his father, who he calls “my best friend ... the definition of unconditional love,” and heeded his dad’s advice to go to college. After graduating from the University of Northern Colorado with a degree in musical theater, he headed to Los Angeles to pursue his career.

Now 37, Martinez leads a fulfilling life as a multi-faceted performer. He’s appeared in productions at many venues including the Mark Taper Forum and Laguna Playhouse, has done some studio work, performs in an ABBA tribute band, and belongs to various theater groups, including one that puts on shows at schools.

Another theater company he is involved with, Deaf West Theatre, produces shows in which cast members — some of whom are deaf or hearing-impaired — use sign language to accompany the vocals. When Martinez’s mother attended one of the group’s performances, she felt the beat of the music and experienced a breakthrough in understanding the power of songs and words, he believes.

“Ivy + Bean,” which concludes its run Nov. 24, is Martinez’s first South Coast Rep production, and he’s relishing the experience.

His versatility as a performer is on display during the show when he transitions seamlessly from acting as a father of two battling daughters to his other part as a neighbor boy who is friends with the title characters. The question he is most frequently asked about the dual roles is how he manages the costume changes, which must sometimes be accomplished in a matter of seconds. (Hint: Velcro and hidden zippers are key.)

But when I attended a performance last weekend, I was more fascinated by Martinez’s quick transformation from behaving like a calm, doting dad into acting like a hyperactive and uncannily believable 6-feet, 2-inch-tall 7-year-old. In both cases, he nails the body language and facial expressions, as well as the vocal intonations.

The kids in the audience, dressed in their Sunday best, were wild for the show. It was clear that they knew and loved these characters from the popular children’s books by author Annie Barrows, and laughed heartily in all the right places. When the performance ended, I made a beeline for the exit to avoid getting trampled by a horde of pint-sized autograph seekers.

It’s not easy making a living in theater, but Martinez has managed to keep his calendar full. After “Ivy + Bean,” he plans to do his usual holiday gig in a Christmas caroling company, and afterward he’ll hit the road with his ABBA tribute band.

He would love to perform on Broadway someday, or better yet, start his own theater company. But until then, he has no complaints about the life he’s built on an unlikely foundation.

Said Martinez: “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.