A Nerd Is Forever
Based on Lloyd Kaufman's 1984 cult-movie classic, the musical version of The Toxic Avenger arrives at the Alley, revamped somewhat and with additional songs, after its long Off-Broadway run. It brings broad humor, compelling music and top-drawer acting with it. The story line in the musical follows the movie pretty faithfully, although it's not as exquisitely violent as the original, which was initially largely ignored but achieved cult status after a long midnight run at NYC's Bleecker Street Theatre. The fidelity will please its myriad fans, but consider it a heads-up alert that this is pure entertainment, not an in-depth character study.
Melvin Ferd the Third, a do-gooder nerd, is portrayed by Constantine Maroulis, American Idol finalist and winner of a Tony nomination for his role in Rock of Ages. Maroulis captures both nerd-dom and the swagger of a mutant antihero, as he very quickly gets dipped by goons into a drum of toxic waste and emerges muscular, green and uglified, though not to the point that we can't still identify with him and wish him every success in his new persona. Part of the humor is that his character is still largely the old persona — a nerd is forever.
Maroulis's big number is the poignant, well-staged and well-lit "You Tore My Heart Out," but he delivers vocally throughout and even finds, when necessary, the right choreographed moves, despite being encumbered by what must be a heavy body suit. He physically is impressive, especially in "Kick Your Ass," a coup-de-theatre choreographed fight (nay, dismembering) scene that is breathtakingly funny. Here we see some of the inventive violence that helped propel the film to spawn an industry of sequels and spin-offs, and we are thankful for the wit.
The love interest is blind librarian Sarah (Mara Davi). Yes, she does have trouble getting books back on the shelf, and it is hilarious — this is not a PC show. Sarah is eager for sex (a woman has needs), but the virginal Toxie never quite connects. Davi scores with her comic timing and gets to showcase her beauty and glam side when the eyeglasses come off and she opens Act II in a white sequined mini-dress with the ebullient "Choose Me, Oprah." Since the character is blind, Davi's enthusiastic race here to the edge of the stage had my heart in my mouth, but fortunately she braked just in time. The mayor who profits from using the mythical town of Tromaville, New Jersey, as a toxic waste dump has been changed to a woman, earning our eternal gratitude, since Nancy Opel nails the part, as she does that of Melvin's mother. She created the role in the Off-B'way production, and she can be sexy or evil, conniving or zany; whatever is needed, she is there, in spades.
The two remaining actors are White Dude (Mitchell Jarvis) and Black Dude (Antoine L. Smith), and they portray a horde of characters with such energy, rich body language and command of their material that I was tempted to begin this review with them. They are stars themselves, not supporting actors, and it is a triumph that they and the three other actors loaded with talent can create such a rich and varied excursion into the carnival of life.
The set is dominated by a mound of toxic drums, delivering the kind of film noir ambience that should delight comic-book fans. Even better, it rotates, allowing scene changes without blackouts or visible stagehands. But the stagehands must be busy indeed, as there are two Keystone Kops routines which require circling the drums, as costumes and even wigs are changed out of sight, apparently in mid-flight. There's also a delightful brief sight gag in another sequence when they pretend the stagehands messed up and got it wrong. The Black Dude and the White Dude can switch instantly, with or without a wig, from super-masculine thug to highly effeminate salon employees — I said it wasn't PC, but it certainly delivers the humor. And, yes, highly amusing occasional cross-dressing is permitted.
The lighting design by Jason Lyons is important and effective, and it enhances especially Maroulis's big number, staged high in the air, atop the mound of drums. The image of the state of New Jersey is handled pretty roughly in the rollicking opening number "Who Will Save New Jersey?" But don't worry, New Jersey fans, with Toxie in charge, even toxic waste can grow flowers. The song "The Legend of the Toxic Avenger" seems like a press-agent's dream, pure hype, and it fits in beautifully and is haunting in its melody.
David Bryan composed the music and Joe DiPietro wrote the book, and they collaborated on the lyrics — both won Tony Awards for their work on Memphis. Here, they faultlessly combine the disparate elements of humor and violence, revenge motif and spoof, and they strike just the right balance. Whether this production finds its way to B'way or no, it is certain to find its way into the hearts and onto the stages of plenty of theaters across the U.S.
Overall cohesive brilliance is achieved by the direction of John Rando, original director of this Off-B'way hit and Tony winner for his direction of Urinetown. He more than puts the cast through the show's energetic paces, and the result is pure audience delight. He is aided enormously by the exciting and varied choreography of Kelly Devine. The five-piece band, onstage but elevated and carefully unobtrusive, does justice to the exuberant, driving score. The scenic design by Beowulf Boritt and the turntable set permit nonstop action to continue uninterrupted. Brilliant acting, a compelling score and a humor-driven plot mesh into a wonderful panoply of rich, exciting entertainment. Hey, they did everything right! Don't miss it.
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