Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The Toxic Avenger: The First Superhero ...
The setting is the polluted town of Tromaville (Exit 13B on the New Jersey Turnpike). Mayor Babs Belgoody is secretly the owner of the toxic waste disposal firm, The Good Earth. Babs has authorized the firm to deposit New York City waste in the town dump. Weakling Melvin Ferd, a student at Troma U. who wants the dump cleaned up, is investigating the firm. Melvin has the hots for the blind Sarah who is the town librarian.
Babs hires two young town punks, Bozo and Sluggo, to eliminate Melvin before he discovers her ownership of The Good Earth. The punks drop Melvin into a vat of toxic waste. As the punks initiate raping Sarah, Melvin emerges from the vat of toxic waste. The waste has mutated him into a super strong, indestructible slimy monster with, for starters, green skin and an eyeball which rests on his face to the side of its socket.
Toxie (as he will be later be named by Sarah) proceeds to dismember and eviscerate the punks. It is at this point that The Toxic Avenger takes off. The tone is exactly right. The blood and mayhem are not excessive. Yes, it is a bit disgusting as Toxie pulls out one punk's intestines, but only mildly and amusingly so. It is the equivalent of the bracing fright of a roller coaster ride.
Many obstacles are yet to be encountered, but Toxie has begun his journey toward being a superhero.
Happily, the actors who have played Bozo and Sluggo are now available to play two dozen additional roles between them. This concept and its execution are right on target. One role is identified in the cast list as White Dude (David Josefsberg) and the other role as Black Dude (Demond Green). The range and deftness of their swift parade of comic performances are remarkable. Both actors bring a considerable amount of detail and emotion to adults and children of both sexes from a variety of backgrounds. Green brings an especially sweet poignancy to a couple of his female roles. Costume designer David Woolard and hair and wig designer Mark Adam Ramp.m.eyer make sharp and essential contributions which enhance their performances.
Nancy Opel triples as Mayor Babs, Melvin's mother and a nun. The two former roles are extended major roles, and Opel embraces both with comic gusto. A fine comedienne, Opel is also quite seductive when, as Babs, she seduces Professor Ken (Black Dude) in order to force him to reveal to her Toxie's "kryptonite." Be there when Opel inhabits both of these women simultaneously.
Nick Cordero plays Melvin and Toxie, his mutated self. Cordero is very winning as Melvin, and strong and powerful both vocally and as a presence as Toxie. Audra Blaser is appropriately daffy as the blind, sexually promiscuous librarian Sarah.
Joe DiPietro's book is excellent. He has updated, tightened and revised the screenplay, improving it every step of the way. Here are just a couple of examples. Simply by saying so, DiPietro ties the Tromaville pollution to global warming. Melvin no longer is a nerdy health club mop boy driven to jump out a club window (into a toxic waste vat) by whacko harassment, but his predicament is directly related to efforts to uncover abuse. Toxie's mother no longer rejects him (no mother would), but she is more concerned about her own suffering than his ("and to thinkall your cousins are corporate attorneys"). The jokes come fast and furiously and a high percentage hit the mark. There are self-referential jokes on a few occasions, but it is not overdone.
It should be noted that both book and lyrics are peppered with scatology, sexually explicit material, and politically incorrect jokes. All of this is presented good naturedly and no group (other than politicians and polluters) is attacked. While this information may be a caution for some, The Toxic Avenger largely plays like innocent fun compared to shows and movies which advocate school girls should have sexual relations in order to be popular.
The music by David Bryan, who is prominently billed as keyboardist and founding member of Bon Jovi, is serviceable. It shows an increasing variety of pastiche-like colors as the show progresses. The excellent singing performances add colors that disguise the fact that some of the songs are more in the mode of pop music than theatre music. The lyrics and rhymes are foursquarely simplistic.
John Rando has directed The Toxic Avenger within an inch of its life. He displays sufficient inventiveness for three productions and has elicited excellent performances from his entire cast. I would suggest that Toxie burst out from the stage into the audience just after his transformation in order to allow the viewer a close view of him earlier on. Also, there should be a break from the heavy band music during the curtain calls. It is frustrating to an audience to have its efforts to express appreciation with applause drowned out.
Set designer Beowulf Boritt is at the top of his game. The basic set is a detailed, evocative toxic waste dump to which the action keeps returning. At the center, there are three drums which revolve and open in varying, interesting ways to reveal sets for the various other Tromaville settings. Special effects/prosthetics designer John Dods' design for Toxie is powerfully effective.
The Toxic Avenger began life on screen in 1985 as a campy, low budget, horror spoof and gore fest from Lloyd Kaufman and his metropolitan area based Troma Studios. Following a little noticed small general theatrical release, it became a cult hit when presented in midnight showings in Greenwich Village. For those with a taste for extreme gore and violence larded with clever tongue-in-cheek humor (including succeeding generations of filmmakers), The Toxic Avenger provided a source of liberating entertainment. Three film sequels, a series of comic books, an animated children's television series, a novelization and two musical adaptations have followed without notable success.
However, thanks to the extremely clever and wise talents who have brought this new musical to the stage, The Toxic Avenger is about to find a large mainstream audience across a wide range of demographics. I left the George Street Playhouse after seeing it, happily thinking (with a nod to Kander and Ebb), "The name on everybody's lips is gonna be Toxie."
The Toxic Avenger continues performances (Evenings Tuesday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Sun. 7 p.m./ Matinee: Thursday (except. 10/16), Saturday, Sunday (except. 11/2) through November 2, 2008 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; on-line: www.GSPonline.org.
The Toxic Avenger Book by Joe DiPietro; Music by David Bryan; Lyrics by DiPietro
and Bryan; directed by John Rando