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DON’T HATE ME JUST BECAUSE I SMELL PUTRID AND MY FACE IS MELTING!

 

Theater Review

by John Topping

published April 10, 2009

 

The Toxic Avenger

now playing Off Broadway at the New World Stages

 

picture - The Toxic AvengerThe Toxic Avenger, based on the 1984 cult film by Lloyd Kaufmann, is now a musical, beating out next season’s Spiderman in the category of musical theater versions of popular movies about men in their 20s transformed into weird heroes with superhuman strength.  One can only dread, er, I mean wonder what the tone of Spidey’s Broadway musical is going to be like when it swings into town.  The Toxic Avenger, for its part, is rooted firmly in comedy (as is the original film, I’m told).  And that’s wise, because comedy is the best thing that The Toxic Avenger has going for it.  From the moment that the first line of the first song is abruptly interrupted by the singer coughing from the toxic fumes surrounding him, it seems that we’re probably in pretty good hands.  And comedy-wise, for the most part, we are.

 

Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot more to recommend about it.  The set by Beowulf Boritt is excellent, a landscape of corroded steel drums full of toxic waste, bathed in green light by Kenneth Posner.  The music, by David Bryan (of Bon Jovi fame), is accomplished but not distinguished.  The lyrics (by both Bryan and book writer Joe DiPietro) are a tough call.  If all of the rest of the elements of a show are soaring, lyrics won’t bring it down.  But here the proceedings, despite a lot of frenetic action, are, in the end, plodding, so they stand out as unremarkable.

 

picture - The Toxic AvengerDon't get me wrong - the show is far from a disaster and there’s lots of fun happening up on the stage.  It just never really ignites.  It obviously wants to be Broadway-bound – and, conceptually, could successfully make the transition “uptown” (really downtown, since most of the Broadway houses are below the World Stages’ 50th Street location, but the recent move of Rock of Ages from the World Stages to the Brooks Atkinson on 47th Street was advertised as transferring uptown, dictated by tradition rather than logic) – but this is not the version that’s going to take it there.

 

It’s the story of Melvin Ferd the Third, a nerd (played by Nick Cordero) from Tromaville, New Jersey, who is hopelessly in love with Sara (Sarah Chase), the town’s blind librarian.  When bullies dump him into a vat of toxic waste, he emerges later as a transformed but strapping mutant, saves Sarah from being raped, and she subsequently falls for him (despite the lingering malodor that follows him everywhere), not realizing it’s actually Melvin, whom she now affectionately calls Toxie.  The subplot involves exposing the mayor of Tromaville (Nancy Opel) as being responsible for making the town a toxic dumping ground in the name of personal profit.

 

picture - The Toxic AvengerRounding out the cast of five and playing almost all of the remaining characters (which is a considerable number) are the actors generically referred to as White Dude (Matthew Saldivar) and Black Dude (Demond Green).  These two guys are the biggest element of fun in the show, as they emerge in new costumes as new characters with sometimes eye-popping speed.  Although they’re both good – Saldivar as a folk singer singing “The Legend of the Toxic Avenger” is hilarious, for example – it doesn’t take long to realize that Green, the black dude, has the closest thing to star quality of the cast.  Although he knows he draws attention to himself and occasionally gets a bit show-offy about it, he nonetheless has “it,” and it’s hard to take one’s eyes off of him when he’s onstage.  (Surprisingly, however, his biggest number, as a professor doing a duet with the mayor called “Evil is Hot,” is when he shines the least.)

 

The big comic set piece, if you will, is a number wherein the mayor and Melvin’s mother, also played by Nancy Opel, have a duet with each other (called “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore”).  Initially she will be in costume as one character, with either White Dude or Black Dude as the other with back to audience, then switches to the other character (as do WD and BD).  Once it’s clear to even the dullest audience member what’s going on, she ultimately emerges in a costume of both characters split down the middle, switching profiles for each of her selves to sing/sling the song’s title insults to the other.

 

The prosthetics and special effects design by John Dods has a serious flaw in Toxie’s mutant mask.  A lot of effort is made to mine comedy from Toxie’s left eye, which is sort of melting down and falling out of the side of his face.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t read well in the audience.  The eye is too small and blends in too much with the rest of the mask to make the necessary distinction.  In that they’re set in anticipation of a long open run, and how much comic mileage is attempted to be made from the eye, it would definitely be worth correcting this error.

 

When the comedy falls flat, it tends to splat loudly, and one wonders why John Rando, an experienced Tony Award-winning director (for Urinetown), didn’t have better instincts.  In one unfortunate moment, Opel reappears briefly in the split-personality costume.  Were they really so in love with it that they had to bring it out for an encore?  Another example is that New Jersey is often the butt of a joke.  When it’s an actual punchline (“This is a democracy and you’re an elected official” “This isn’t a democracy, this is New Jersey”), it’s delivered with way too much punch.  You don’t have to sell it to us, guys, we get it.  It should be mentioned that the endless Jersey jokes are an homage of affectionate ribbing to the citizens of the Garden State (where the show originated).  It’s kind of nice to have the Jersey jokes with the standard city snobbery removed.

 

johntopping @ stageandcinema.com

 

all photos are by Carol Rosseg

 

 

 
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