The small, low-ceilinged theater at the Greenbelt Arts Center, with intimate seating arrangements and limited space for sets, is a natural habitat for The Toxic Avenger, a quintessential small-cast, off-Broadway musical that thrives in such an environment. Based on a 1980s comedy/horror movie produced by B-picture factory Troma Entertainment, the 2008 musical (book by Joe DiPietro, music by David Bryan, lyrics by both) emphasizes the comic over the horrific side of the source material.
A principal delight of the Greenbelt production is its ensemble. It consists of only two actors – Michael Iacone and Todd Hines – but they contain multitudes: thugs, cops, hairdressers, drag queens, hookers, folk singers, doctors and scientists, etc. They change costumes and characters at a breakneck pace, sing effectively as several of their characters, and are a complete hoot in all their varied incarnations.
Likewise versatile is Pamela Northrup who with her big belt voice plays both evil, corrupt, and sexually manipulative Mayor Babs Belgoody and Ma Ferd, mother of the title character. Her very distinct characters, it is fair to say, do not like each other much, and Northrup’s highlight moment is “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore,” in which she plays both characters as they trade insults, ending with a marvelous costume joke.
Even monsters need love, and the Toxic Avenger’s love interest is Sarah (Jessie Duggan), the Tromaville’s hot, blind librarian. With an abundance of energy and a nice high soprano voice, Duggan does well when leading songs like “My Big French Boyfriend” and “Choose Me Oprah,” as well as in her part of a duet with Toxie, “Hot Toxic Love.”
Sarah is cutely hot throughout; she is visibly blind only sporadically. She begins with some token swipes of a white cane, spends most of the show moving about (and even reading) like any cute, hot, energetic sighted girl, and then reverts to overt blindness toward the end of the second act, adding a pratfall for good measure. It makes sense for Sarah to be a blind character, so she can fall in love with the hideously ugly Toxie, but the inconsistency is disconcerting.
If you’re a mother who just wants her son to be a lawyer, it would be a blow to find he had turned out to be a monster (not that the two professions are necessarily incompatible, but that would be a different show). Northrup and the ensemble sing that he’s a “Disappointment.” Unfortunately, they’re right. Matt Gray’s performance as Melvin/Toxie is the production’s weak point. Melvin begins as a nebbish geek, whose beta male physicality, nerdy demeanor, and small, sometimes almost inaudible, voice are reasonably fitting.
The problem comes when he turns into the powerful and, to local evildoers, frightening Toxic Avenger, courtesy of being dumped into a drum of toxic radioactive waste by the mayor’s henchmen. Toxie retains the same beta male physicality, nerdy demeanor, and small, sometimes almost inaudible, voice as Melvin. Save for his well-designed green monster mask, complete with a droopy eyeball, it’s difficult to tell that the character has undergone a life-changing transformation. His occasional “Rwarr” – emitted rather in the manner of a child playing at being a dinosaur – isn’t enough to make him credibly scary to other characters.
He isn’t helped by the absence of the Incredible Hulk-like ripped body suit actors typically wear as Toxie. Instead, he is given an old shirt, dingy jeans and what looks like green garden gloves. Otherwise, Jeaneo Binney’s multiplicity of costumes is colorful, fun, and campy at times, sexy at others (especially for Northrup in “Evil is Hot” and Duggan in her black gunslinger outfit in the second act), practical in view of the rapid changes, and always well suited to whatever character an actor is playing at any given moment.
In addition to being a wonderful costume show, The Toxic Avenger is a great wig show. Hines, Iacone, and Northrup get wigs of all colors and styles, as fun and campy as many of the costumes.
The band, led by Elizabeth Alford and Rachel Sandler and placed on an upstage platform, expertly plays the pop/rock-influenced score. Their work is especially notable in maintaining a good balance in the theater’s confined space, with the unamplified cast members’ voices.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.