Tales and scales

When Seattle native Justin Huertas was asked to write a show about his queer identity and play cello in it, no one could have predicted the end result

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Sitting in a rehearsal space at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Justin Huertas laughs when asked whether the success of his musical Lizard Boy has exceeded expectations.

“Yes, I think that’s very true!” he says. “I never imagined this. This is beyond my dreams.”

A resident of Seattle, Huertas was commissioned to write a solo show about his life for the city’s Repertory Theatre back in 2011, but the exact details were left open.

“The only requirement was that I played cello in it. I decided I didn’t want to do a show by myself, so I wrote a show for three people, and I didn’t want to be the only one playing an instrument, so it was a band – guitar, piano, cello. Then the next layer was ‘superhero’, because it was all based on a story I made up about myself having superpowers. Having a superhero story told by a three-person rock band informed a lot of how we tell the story.

“So, I was commissioned to write a show to capture my identity as a queer person, a brown person, as a Filipino American, and I just found the weirdest way to do that!”

Weird or not, since its public debut in 2015, Lizard Boy has won a legion of US admirers. As well as writing the show, Huertas stars in it as Trevor, a young man who discovers uncanny powers related to the green scales on his skin caused by a spillage of dragon’s blood – though at first his main concern is the parlous state of his love life. As Huertas recalls, the wider meaning of this didn’t even strike him at first.

“After the first couple of workshops we did to see what the show could be, that’s when I realised – the lizard skin is a metaphor! It’s funny that it took me as long as it did to realise that what I was writing about was my own journey, my journey of identity. Not just queer identity, but racial identity. That’s what it means specifically to me, but when people come to the show and I talk to them afterwards, they say, ‘You know what, I related to this because my lizard scales are XYZ – I am insecure about this aspect of myself or that aspect of myself’.”

As for creating a musical in which he himself stars as a superhero, Huertas says: “As an actor, I’ve always been told that I would do really well in the supporting roles, the clowns and Shakespeare’s fools, the comic relief type characters, and I’ve never been told that I could be a superhero, so I wanted to be a superhero!”

Following its run at Hope Mill, Huertas is taking Lizard Boy to the Edinburgh fringe, thereby fulfilling what he admits is a long-held ambition. This current UK version of the show is actually what he calls a special one-hour ‘fringe cut’.

“It was already this wham-bam whirlwind of a rock concert superhero journey, and now it’s going to be that even more so. If you love rock music, if you love superheroes, if you love coming-of-age stories, if you love romantic comedies, we’re here for you. That’s what we’re giving you and we’re doing it all in an hour. I mean, lucky you!”

Lizard Boy is at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester, 14-27 July, then heading to Edinburgh Fringe 

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