November 24, 2009

The Toxic Avenger Musical (Review)


The Toxic Avenger

by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan
Directed by John Rando
4.5 / 5 zedheads

The sight of an eco-conscientious toxic mutant disemboweling and beheading people on stage to a rock score by a founding member of Bon Jovi was probably not a sight anticipated by the 19th century architects of the original Danforth Music Hall in Toronto.

Then again, what could prepare anyone – even modern audiences – for the exuberantly silly, exceptionally inventive, lovingly lowbrow and bawdy rock musical that is THE TOXIC AVENGER? I didn't know what to expect going in, but my socks were thoroughly rocked coming out.

The Toxic Avenger Musical is a monster of a show with memorable songs like "Jersey Girl," "Big Green Freak," and "Evil is Hot." The musical is as energetic a spoof on superheroes and environmentalism as Lloyd Kaufman's original Troma cult classic The Toxic Avenger in 1984. You don’t have to be familiar with the original Toxic Avenger films to appreciate the comedic rock musical twist Joe Dipietro and David Bryan of Bon Jovi have put on this cult-favorite anti-hero. The Toxic Avenger Musical is on the fast track to being one of my top favorite horror-comedy musicals right up there with The Little Shop of Horrors.

The Toronto production of The Toxic Avenger Musical stars Evan Alexander Smith as Melvin Ferd the Third, a wimpy earth scientist who is in love with ditzy blind librarian Sarah (Brittany Gray). Melvin discovers that the corrupt Tromaville Mayor (Louise Pitre) is on the take to turn the city of Tromaville into Manhattan’s toxic waste dump. Two of the mayor’s goons (Daren A. Herbert and Jamie McKnight) dispose of Melvin in a vat of toxic waste that, like a radioactive Charles Atlas, turns Melvin into the muscular, deformed, and beastly Toxic Avenger!

The songs are incredibly catchy, especially with the farcical lyrics by Joe Dipietro. The show I saw was approximately two hours of exuberant action in which the cast, accompanied by a live band, rocked the house through a series of perfectly choreographed and fast-paced set and costume changes without an intermission. You'll be amazed what the production does with a set that at first appears to be nothing but rusty barrels.

Although the the musical was originally presented in New York with an American cast,  I think the Toronto cast (especially Cara Leslie and the unbelievably beautiful Sarah Gray) rock harder. I bought the soundtrack of the American production, and while it is a great musical soundtrack I have to say that the Toronto cast brought a lot more vocal  'oomf' to their live showing. [CLICK HERE for a FREE song download from the soundtrack]

In terms of casting, Louise Pitre was simply a coup. In her performance as the evil (and hot) Mayor Babs, she is sleazy and charming; her brilliant performance holds the story together around the Toxie / Sarah love story that is amusing yet somewhat predictable despite Smith and Gray's best efforts. Unpredictable, however, is Brittany Gray’s individual take on Sarah. More so than her counterpart on the American cast, Gray’s Sarah is far more cartoonish and colourful. She has a quirky high-pitched voice that perfectly compliments the over-the-top and outlandish tone of the musical. Her take on Sarah also plays off well against the bizarrely sincere but outrageous Toxie who, unlike the original movie character, sports glowing longs of stringy, gooey hair (the better for head banging with).

Frankly, the cast is a joy, but to pick out individual achievements does a disservice to the overall cooperation of every cast member (especially Daren A. Herbert and Jamie McKnight who play all the incidental and background characters). This production is very much an ensemble piece. I have to say, however, that Evan Smith as Melvin / Toxie is probably so good he won't get enough credit for his work. As Melvin, he's appropriately awkward and weird, but when he goes under the Toxie makeup and costuming, Smith is almost unrecognizable as the titular toxic hero. I had a chance to get face to face with Toxie when the character jumped down into the audience to terrorize us during the song "Everybody Dies." In that costume, Smith becomes Toxie. It's easy to forget he's an actor and not really a radioactive mutant with a green heart of gold.

Listen: if you see The Toxic Avenger Musical but are not tapping your toes and cheering on Toxie as he tries to woo the love of his life at the same time he's compelled to tear off the arms of bad guys, then you are as dead inside as the zombies I normally write about. Know that the humour is low brow -- if you can't handle humour at the expense of gender stereotypes and the blind then this show is really not for you. Although the source of the humour may be juvenile in true Troma fashion, the performances are top notch and sell this musical with a lot of heart.

As with nuclear waste, you'll be feeling the hot, burning, and toxic rythms of The Toxic Avenger Musical long after you've left the theatre.