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The Toxic Avenger

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Nancy Opel
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

A show with a pejorative adjective in its title is just asking for trouble. And in the case of The Toxic Avenger, I'd love to oblige - one-word descriptions for this meltdown of a musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan that just opened at New World Stages don't come much more apt than that T word. But in the interests of creativity and Nancy Opel, I'll demur.

Of the former, librettist-lyricist DiPietro (of the long-running I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change), composer-lyricist Bryan (of the defining 80s rock band Bon Jovi), and director John Rando have contributed little to speak of - assuming you're familiar with other horror-inspired Off-Broadway goofs. But of the latter, they've provided so much - and so frequently - you almost want to excuse them their other transgressions. Anything that allows so many opportunities to a performer of Opel's blindingly polished caliber can't be all bad - no matter how hard it tries.

Whether she's playing a wisenheimer nun, a dastardly mayor, a meddling mother, or - in the only memorable scene and song - the last two at the same time, Opel is pure, unapologetic musical comedy. With a ceiling-scraping belt, more facial expressions than Fanny Brice and all them Barrymores put together, and a command of irony that transforms even the most innocuous dialogue into an AK-47, she's a seismic jolt of personality in a show that needs every drop it can get.

It's based on a 1984 cult horror-comedy film by Lloyd Kaufman that really had nothing more on its mind than invoking a modern-day superhero as a product of everyone's favorite Cold War bugaboo: nuclear annihilation. But the musical has been updated to today, apparently to take advantage of current trends toward environmental activism, which might make it more relevant but ensures as much preaching as entertainment.

The movie was primarily interested in goofing on the tropes of its genre, so of course the musical must do the same for its adopted form. So there are plenty of jokes about musicals derived from movies, double- (and triple- and quadruple-) casting, ballads decorated with endless notes, and so on. And if you haven't seen any number of other musicals that have done the same thing (Evil Dead in 2006, or the prototypical 2001 examples, Urinetown and Bat Boy) you might think them funny still.

Nick Cordero and Sara Chase
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

But if you've already been there and done that, you'll be searching frantically for anything else to latch onto - and there's not much. Once nerdy Melvin Ferd the Third (Nick Cordero) is dipped into a barrel of radioactive waste and becomes the titular character, determined to stop any and all who would destroy the planet, there's not much for him to do but fall for the local blind girl Sarah (Sara Chase) - who calls him Toxie - and ruin the plans of the sleazy Mayor Belgoody (Opel) who's trying to fund her run for governor on the environment's back. Everything that happens, including Matthew Salvidar and Demond Green playing other ensemble character, is merely biding time until the arbitrary (and predictable) finish.

Unfortunately, the songs are not distinctive enough to make the waiting particularly pleasurable. Rock without reason, they meander about and mock various styles, treat unexceptional sentiments with bone-crushing weight (representative titles: "Big Green Freak," "Evil Is Hot," "Thank God She's Blind"), and coast on the rollicking output of Doug Katsaros's band and Kurt Fischer's ear-rending amplification. Except for Opel's epic duet with herself (the charmingly named "Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore"), there's rarely even a pretense to character or theatricality, something the better titles of this general type (Bat Boy, Little Shop of Horrors) didn't ignore.

Rando has given this show the same kind of improbably focused and anything-for-a-laugh production he brought to Urinetown, at once engrossing and ugly, understaffed and overblown. Beowulf Boritt's set, an ever-moving mountain of waste drums that reveals various locales, is the cleverest the show gets visually: Kenneth Posner's lights are plentiful but unremarkable and David C. Woolard's costumes, except (again) for Opel's two-for-the-space-of-one ensemble in "Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore," are distractingly uncampy. One would imagine the creators of something like this would at least want things to look as funny as possible.

So much is so strained from the performers, however, that this oversight is perhaps not so surprising. Chase gives a mildly noteworthy comic turn as the deceptively uninnocent love interest - and only because she's subjected to so many blind gags, a fair number hit due to the law of averages. Cordero gives Toxie everything he's got, but the big green guy is more about his body suit, makeup, prosthetics, and sound effects, than it is on humanity - the only foundation for any character worth caring about. Salvidar and Green, armed with little more than costume changes, have it even harder.

Only Opel makes it all seem effortless - or worthwhile - by piercing through the show's endless artifice with her sharply honed stage know-how. There's no good reason her roles couldn't be played by three separate actresses, but her split-second changes of costume and wig, just to keep the show running at full throttle, are in many ways their own reward. She's simply a star, and thus there's no need to ask her why. With the rest of The Toxic Avenger, however, it's a question that comes up over and over again.

The Toxic Avenger
New World Stages / Stage 1, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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