BWW Review: THE TOXIC AVENGER, Arts Theatre
One should always see half a dozen or so shows every year for which that phrase is the most apposite - it can't all be Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda you know!
We're in the Garden State of New Jersey, Manhattan's dumping ground, in the small town of Tromaville where the corrupt mayor is accepting hazardous green goo for cash, her secret deals safely filed away by Sarah, the blind librarian (and if that concept offends rather than amuses, it's probably best to stop reading now). But geeky Melvin loves sightless Sarah and is determined to rid his hometown of its gunk, but a couple of the mayor's goons throw him in the goo and he returns, green and gruesome, as... The Toxic Avenger! Will he defeat the mayor, Will he get the girl? Will his eye stay on his cheek?
If you're thinking that this sounds a bit like The Rocky Horror Show spliced into The Little Shop of Horrors, well you wouldn't be far wrong, but the show actually traces its roots to the z-movie of the same name, a stoner cult hit from the 80s that kick-started Troma movies, the ones you see (but don't remember) when Sky Movies are showing Kramer vs Kramer and you've already glugged a dozen alcopops down the pub. But, just like z-movies, cultish musicals need to get the basics right before they can veer off into the bonkers and bizarre and this one does: script, singing and pacing all excellent.
The songs are good, if a little too stadium-rock inflected for my tastes - not unexpectedly so with Bon Jovi's (and New Jersey's) David Bryan writing the tunes and Memphis's (and New Jersey's) Joe DiPietro providing the book - they both had a hand in the lyrics. For most of the numbers, musical director, head-banded Alex Beetschen and his band, balance the rock with the voices, but, as usual, I get terribly annoyed when any lyric is lost in a musical: a bit like skipping a page in a novel. Though I had no problem with the power ballads (else the fact that they were, you know, power ballads) I failed to hear some laugh line lyrics clearly - but I'm old!
Unlike the cast, whose youth allows them to put in some extremely energetic performances. Mark Anderson makes a winning, if murderous, Avenger and sings with the sweetest of voices from the ugliest of faces. As his paramour, Emma Salvo milks the handicap motif mercilessly, but belts her blues like Blind Lemon Jefferson in a baby doll nightie and odd popsocks - and corpses superbly in her most "tender" moment with Toxie. Natalie Hope gives us a villainous mayor from Scooby Doo via Ann Summers, doubling as Melvin's mother in a fast-change scene straight outta vaudeville rather than Tromaville.
Just two more actors (give or take a stagehand or two - we're full-on fourth wall demolishingly meta from start to finish) play everyone else from gun-toting cop to sassy gf. Ché Francis (the one with the pins) and Oscar Conlon-Morrey (the one who looks like a very badly Snapchat-filtered mulleted Jon Bon Jovi) almost steal the show with some brilliantly executed slapstick and instantly recognisable comic types. Give them their own spin-off show!
What's not to like? Well, it can be a little relentless, a little broad and, over more than two hours, just the five actors - even five as talented as these - get close to overstaying their welcome. Maybe that's all fine though, as it allows quite a serious message to emerge from the comic chaos without ever beating us about the ears with Bonoish earnestness. In this show, the "G" in #MAGA is as green as the gooey Avenger himself.
An aside. Even the most innovative and committed shows can be supported by the blandest programmes. Not this time. Benji Sperring's Director's Note is a cri-de-coeur to use the power of theatre, of transgression and of laughter as politically incorrectly as you dare in the service of talking about the things that need talking about. And boy, does New Jersey and the other 49 states need to do some talking right now. Quite a curtain-raiser before the curtain is even glimpsed. Bravo Sir! Bravo.