The Toxic Avenger
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
April 4, 2009
The Toxic Avenger, the John Rando-directed musical with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change) and music and lyrics by David Bryan (keyboardist and songwriter of Bon Jovi), proves a number of things. The first is that Rando, Tony Award winner for Urinetown, is probably the best director of camp in New York. The second is that Nancy Opel is one of the most valuable actresses anywhere. The third is that no matter how many times and ways you see a joke coming down the pike, if it's done right, it's absolutely hilarious.
The Toxic Avenger is based on, as they say, a "movie most people watched when they were stoned," Lloyd Kaufman's 1984 cult film that some people would consider to be a classic. In terms of style, it owes a lot to cult-film-cum-musical predecessors Reefer Madness and Evil Dead: the Musical. The three have a lot in common: rock score, crass humor, built-in appeal, splatter seats (okay, only Evil Dead and Toxic have splatter seats). Yes, Reefer has a more melodic score and Evil Dead has a talking moose head, but Toxic has...toxic waste.
That's right. Toxic waste. The Toxic Avenger is a superhero. In fact, he's New Jersey's first superhero. He is Melvin Ferd the Third, a nerdy guy out to stop global warming and all the toxic waste from Manhattan that's stinking up the Garden State. When he learns that it's Mayor Babs Belgoody's company (called "the Good Earth," naturally) supplying the waste, he sets out to destroy her. But she sets out to destroy him, and he's dumped into a vat of toxic waste. He becomes this superhero, tries to do good by killing the bad guys and win the affection of Sarah, the pretty blonde librarian. Who also happens to be blind.
Let's start with the third thing the musical proves. DiPietro's laugh-a-second script is filled with off-color humor, mostly making fun of the blind. There are also sight-gags a-plenty in Beowulf Boritt's extremely versatile set (Sarah's home has upside down wallpaper and a horizontal "Home Sweet Home" sign hung vertically; photos of famous politicians Sarah Palin, Rod Blagojevich, and Eliot Spitzer adorn the walls of the office of the mayor, who aspires to be governor). Chances are, if this kind of humor offends you,you should stay far, far, FAR away from New World Stages.
In fact, there are so many offensive remarks about the blind in the script (even a Helen Keller joke), both my companion and I left the theater shocked that we hadn't yet heard of any complaints. For the record, with complete knowledge that we'll be going to hell in a hand basket, my companion and I thought they were utterly hilarious, in tune with the campy nature of the show, and even though we saw a lot of the gags coming (we both knew there would be one point that Sarah would be singing while walking and end up off stage), they were done perfectly, thanks to Rando, DiPietro, and the fetching and bewitching Sara Chase, who essays the role of Sarah.
Nancy Opel is an actress who has played Yenta the Matchmaker, Penelope Pennywise, and the Drowsy Chaperone. So you know she has musical comedy in her bones. But she elevates it to uncharted levels in this show merely by stepping on stage. There's a wonderful song called "Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore." It's a duet between Mayor Belgoody and Ma Ferd, Opel and Opel; it brings down the house and will no doubt earn her a spot in the "legendary" file in the minds of all the theater junkies who come to see this show.
In fact, Opel steals the show right out from under the uniformly strong cast (which also includes Nick Cordero as the title hero, and in a variety of roles, Matthew Saldivar as "White Dude," who plays, well, all the white roles, and Demond Green, a Tracy Morgan in-the-making, as "Black Dude," who plays, well, you guessed it.)
Bryan's score is really the weakest link; it's serviceable, at best (though his orchestrations, written with Christopher Janke, are spot-on). Save a Springsteen-esque (well, of course, it IS New Jersey, duh!) rock ballad, it isn't particularly melodic, though the lyrics are often witty. It's also played far too loud (though the band is kickin') and we lose some of said lyrics. There are a number of Bon Jovi allusions—keep your ears open. Costumes and lighting—designed respectively by David C. Wollard and Kenneth Posner—are all perfect for the show. Wendy Seyb's choreography is so natural that it almost goes unnoticed.
If it wasn't directed by a camp master such as Rando, all might be lost. But Rando's production is far stronger than a lot of other "camp" shows that have played and died. The silliness isn't self-deprecating, as it was in Xanadu. Here, the humor is actual humor, not, "look at us, we're making fun of musical theater!" coming organically from the script, design and performers. (Okay, there is one Phantom joke, but that's allowed). And while this humor isn't for everyone, just like its film predecessor, The Toxic Avenger, the musical, will no doubt find an audience. It certainly deserves one.