The Toxic Avenger Musical
Starring Celina Carvajal, Nick Cordero, Demond Green, Jonathan Root, and Nancy Opel
Book & Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music & Lyrics by David Bryan
Fight Direction by Rick Sordelet & David DeBesse
Directed by John Rondo
New World Stages
Tickets: $51.50, $71.50 (check Theatermania for discounts)
Global warming is upon us. The earth is in crisis. It is a time in need of heroes. Especially in one particular, horrible place.
Some theatergoers already familiar with the 1984 cult classic The Toxic Avenger, from low-brow, low-budget Troma Entertainment, might be understandably hesitant to check out The Toxic Avenger Musical. Whether you hated the film, loved it enough to watch all three sequels (and the animated series), or have somehow escaped its schlocky charm, most people likely will be relieved to know that this Off-Broadway rock musical is more in the spirit of Andrew Lloyd Webber than Lloyd Kaufman, rendered as a love story about a disfigured man wooing the woman of his dreams.
The show’s tagline is a punny “Never Let Love Go To Waste,” a story about an underdog geek with a big heart getting the girl (after having the rest of him supersized in all the ways that matter), with a timely environmental message and loads of cheap shots at New Jersey—truly a show that should appeal to a broad audience, especially one filled with New Yorkers. The shocking gore, violence, and sexuality of the films have been toned down to not-quite-family-friendly levels, but the humor is still just gross and “trashy” enough, relying more on the suggestion of naughtiness than R-rated nudity. This is a chaste if not quite tasteful take on “New Jersey’s first superhero.” Yet if you enjoyed the cheesiness of Kaufman’s brand of “special” effects, they work even better on the stage than on the screen. True fans will want to sit in the Row C “brain splatter zone,” where they may be squirted by brain juice or sprinkled by spittle throughout the show, and graced with gratuitous panty shots; just remember to keep your own crap off the stage so you don’t injure the actors, which has already happened at one performance.
This is the third musical adaptation of The Toxic Avenger, and judging by its successful run at the New World Stages in New York since April 2009, it may also be the best. It’s approved by Troma’s own Lloyd Kaufman, who was featured in commercials promoting its first run in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and it certainly has an impressive pedigree of its own. The production is directed by John Rando, who won the 2002 Tony Award for his direction of the Broadway musical about another corrupt small town, Urinetown. The book was written by Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) and the music was written by Bon Jovi keyboardist, David Bryan, who also collaborated with DiPietro on the lyrics.
The story has been somewhat simplified for the stage—not that there was much there in the first place—but the changes are actually an improvement over the contrived and meandering plot of the film; fortunately, much of the silliness remains. The setting is still Tromaville, “Exit 13B on the New Jersey Turnpike.” As we learn in the rousing opening song, “Who Will Save New Jersey?”, Tromaville is “a place between heaven and hell” where “if the pollution doesn’t get you—the aroma will!” Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt realizes Tromaville as piles and stacks of rusting drums of toxic waste scattered all over the stage, with eerie green lighting by Kenneth Posner. The band is situated high on the left, and scene changes are efficiently accomplished through the use of a rotating set of barrels at the center of the stage, which can quickly transform into any number of locations with minimal props.
Jersey’s savior is the unlikely Melvin Ferd the Third (Nick Cordero). Rather than a nerdy janitor at a health club, as in the film, here Melvin is a nerdy environmentalist intent on cleaning up the toxic waste plaguing his town. He’s in love with Sarah (Celina Carvajal, new to the show since June), a sexy, blind librarian and aspiring romance writer who likes him for his big heart but still can’t get past his external ugliness (cue the irony). Melvin discovers a plot by Mayor Babs Belgoody, played by the amazingly talented Nancy Opel (who also plays a nun and Melvin’s mother, Ma Ferd—more on this later), to use Tromaville as a dumping ground for toxic waste from The Good Earth Company (“It’s defiling the planet and the classic book!”). But when he confronts the saucy, evil mayor, she sends her goons, Sluggo and Bozo (played by Jonathan Root and Demond Green*, who also portray most of the other incidental characters), to “Get the Geek.”
This is the moment the audience is waiting for, and it doesn’t disappoint. When the toughs catch up to Melvin at the dump, one of them drops him into a smoking drum of toxic waste. Screaming, he seems to dissolve in the green goo and disappears from stage. Shortly afterward, when Sarah strolls past on her way home, the goons attempt to rape her. Thankfully this doesn’t go as far as the film version, and they’re soon interrupted by an angry roar. Fist-sized dents bulge out of the metal drum and a “hideously deformed monster of superhuman size and strength” (Cordero covered in latex and slime) climbs out. He attacks the two guys while singing about it (“Kick Your Ass”), literally tearing them limb from limb and using their own body parts to bludgeon them to death. Leaving the men scattered all over the stage, the Toxic Avenger (affectionately nicknamed “Toxie”) takes Sarah back to her place.
This big fight scene was very well done. It’s hard to rip someone’s arm off and hit them with it in a movie, but it’s harder still to sell it in front of a live audience. Fortunately the creators take the same approach as Kaufman and make no attempts at realism. Attentive people in the audience could easily see through the campy illusion, but hopefully you’re having so much fun you won’t notice or care. It’s all part of the show’s humor, which manifests in the silly lyrics, amusing dialogue, numerous sight gags, and slapstick comedy.
One of the most successful elements of the show is Carvajal’s sweet performance as the blind Sarah, who bumbles and bumps her way through her scenes with wide-eyed innocence. At one point, she actually wanders off stage-right in the middle of their duet, “Hot Toxic Love.” This kind of situational humor carries the show; for most of the story, she’s blissfully unaware that she’s dating a mutant while Toxie keeps trying to avoid too much intimacy. It’s the best of both worlds: Toxie finally has his chance to win over the woman he loves (“Thank God She’s Blind”) and sex-starved Sarah has the perfect man of her romantic fantasies (“My Big French Boyfriend”).
These are some great numbers, and in fact most of the songs are strong—in sheer energy if not in their occasionally clunky lyrics—most notably the tango between the Mayor and Professor Ken, who discovers Toxie’s only weakness (“Evil is Hot”), the folky “The Legend of the Toxic Avenger”, and Toxie’s ballad “You Tore My Heart Out.” The real showstopper, however, is “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore,” a duet between the Mayor and her old rival, Ma Ferd, which is complicated by the fact that Nancy Opel plays both roles. The resulting performance is frenetic, clever, and hilarious in its audacity, and Opel, Tony-nominated for her role as Penelope Pennywise in Urinetown, is truly marvelous.
The Toxic Avenger Musical has its tongue firmly in hideously-deformed-cheek, self-referential as both a musical and a follow-up to a cheesy horror movie, and straining against the boundaries of the fourth wall. This is a show that could not work without the willing participation of its audience, and it’s certainly not for everyone. If you enjoy watching SyFy Channel Originals and B-movies such as the one that inspired the musical, you will have a roaring good time. My only disappointment was the lack of Toxie’s signature tutu and mop, just about the only things I missed from the film franchise.
*In the show I attended on July 4, 2009, Demond Green was replaced by understudy Nicholas Rodriguez.