As the Earth spins erratically, unsteady with the fever of war, and even the habitually parky streets of Manchester are sticky with the proof of the crisis in its climate, there’s something to be said for the certainties of musical theatre.

For an hour or so at least, the unruly tangle of improvised life can be set aside for a world in which events proceed to the familiar beats of verse and chorus, and no broken heart goes unrepaired.

Describing itself as a ‘new’ musical, Lizard Boy has in fact been evolving for seven years, hatching initially in Seattle as a solo piece showcasing the considerable talents of current lead, author and composer, Justin Huertas. Its short run at Hope Mill Theatre, a cool nook of shady bohemia at the frayed edges of Manchester’s New Islington, is, however, its UK debut, its basecamp before ascending to Edinburgh for the Festival.

While the rule for ‘new’ musicals has increasingly been that they be bolted together from the shuffle of a well-beloved recording artist’s back catalogue or orchestrated from the worn videotape of a film or television favourite, Lizard Boy is very much the welcome exception. 

Not least of its achievements is the standard of Huertas’s songwriting (for which music supervisor, Steven Tran, should also be given credit). Most certainly not a jukebox musical, practically every song from its score boasts A-side immediacy. Excitingly, these are modern pop songs, hard to pin down, but owing as much to Green Day as The Hidden Cameras, more to High School Musical than Sondheim.

Very much its own creature (it bills itself as a ‘gay indie folk rock comic book musical’), if it bears a passing resemblance to anything from the last century, it is – oddly enough – Once More With Feeling, the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That a comparison with such a long-running series holds any water at all says much about the sure-footedness and rapidity with which Lizard Boy’s triangle of characters are imbued with a complexity that Buffy’s Xander never quite achieved. In this, of course, it’s hard to be certain where the writing ends and the performance begins.

Alternating with a British cast, it’s the original American principals who perform at the press night. Between the three, there’s a fluidity and rapport that lends the appearance of ease to the complex interplay of thespianism and musicianship that their roles demand. Tonally, there’s something of the sincere playfulness of the more interesting modern mainstream comic books, eschewing grimness for a broader palette of colours. In this respect, then, it’s no surprise that Huertas and Tran have contributed to the kindred spirit of the Squirrel Girl radio show.

The triangle itself is very much an equilateral one. Whereas Kirsten ‘Kiki’ de Lohr Helland has the voice and range to steal the scenes that Siren, an antagonist with all the flawed allure of a Disney sea-witch, has set her misguided sights on, her villainy would mean nothing if Huertas, as Trevor, did not manage to convey a compelling ordinariness as the purported monster whose scales the audience never see. Likewise, without William A. Williams’ ability to stutter from nervous over-familiarity to a more wide-eyed affability, there would be less at stake in Trevor’s heartbreak.

Directed with a wonderful economy of light and sound by Brandon Ivie, a parable that understands that joy and wonder carry more weight than preaching, Lizard Boy has it all: comedy, romance and a fight scene seemingly arranged by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. 

It deserves every scale-like sequin on each of its five stars.

By Desmond Bullen

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Lizard Boy is at Hope Mill Theatre until July 27, 2022 before moving on to the Biig Yin, Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

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