Poor Melvin Ferd the Third just can’t catch a break. The ladies shun him, the jocks harass him, and the pretty blind librarian he has a crush on? Well, she thinks he’s a scrawny dweeb. But don’t fret too much for Melvin. His luck turns around after he is thrown into a vat of nuclear waste!
Such is the premise of the 1984 cult-classic film, The Toxic Avenger, now appearing in musical form at the Silver Spring Black Box theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. Rorschach Theatre’s production of The Toxic Avenger: The Musical follows this unlikely hero as he is transformed from a high school nobody into a mangled mutant superhero who fights crime in New Jersey and finally gets the girl of his dreams. (She’s blind, remember and therefore unphased by his disfigured face. No, it’s not politically correct.)
Now, if you are wondering to yourself “did that campy ’80s horror movie really merit a musical version?” then I have good news for you. Absolutely! If you are a fan of demented silliness, then this is the musical you didn’t know you needed in your life.
The Toxic Avenger is a glorious schticky, tongue-in-cheek musical in no danger of taking itself too seriously and reveling in the bawdy camp of its source material. Joe DiPietro wrote the book, which largely follows the low-brow humor of the ’80s movie (disclaimer: I haven’t actually seen the movie, but I did watch the original 1984 movie trailer on YouTube and… oh man, I had forgotten how awesomely weird the ’80s were. See for yourself.) David Bryan – Bon Jovi’s keyboard player – composed the slamming rock score that will have fans of percussion bouncing along in their seats. DiPietro and Bryan collaborated on lyrics that include more New Jersey jokes than an episode of Jersey Shore. (“If the pollution doesn’t get you, the aroma will!” begins the show’s opening number.)
The musical had a modestly successful run off-Broadway when it played in 2009 under the direction of John Rando who won the 2002 Tony Award for directing the similarly dystopian comedy Urinetown. And speaking of directors, it’s not a stretch to attribute the success of the Rorschach production to the directorial choices made by Tracy Lynn Olivera. Olivera is known to DC theatergoers as one of our most esteemed and reliable performers. She has two Helen Hayes Awards to her name and just this week added two more nominations to a list already too long to count.
Olivera is making her directorial debut with Toxic Avenger, and with it, she proves that her golden touch extends to directing as well as performing. She has turned this silly show into an eminently watchable, fast-moving celebration of hilarity. She coaxes layers of comedy out of the hard-working cast and has turned the Silver Spring Black Box into a raucous venue reminiscent of a seedy 80s dive bar. (Loads of young people were in the house the night I attended.)
This is Rorschach Theatre’s first foray into musicals after 20 years of producing plays. As such, this show has attracted five actors making their Rorschach debut who bring righteous vocal skills to the company.
Ricky Drummond plays the headlining role of Melvin/Toxie. In an all-around solid performance, he transforms from mild-mannered Melvin to muscular anti-hero and heartthrob Toxie. Drummond shows off powerful vocals in love songs with improbable titles like “Thank God She’s Blind,” and, in a duet with a comedic Emily Levey as the blind librarian Sarah, “Hot Toxic Love.”
Tess Higgins plays the evil mayor of Tromaville, a (fictional) Jersey town just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Higgins creates a great caricature of the greedy politician who is ready to poison her constituents for cash while still asking for their votes. She does double duty as Melvin’s mother, double casting that allows for a brilliant performance in the act one closing number, “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” in which Higgins channels two characters at once. She jabs, strangles, pokes, pulls – and screlts – as she duels with herself onstage.
But the standout performances in the show are Joshua Simon and Jordan Essex who play such an assortment of supporting characters that one’s mind boggles at the number of costume changes required. (Costumes by Frank Labovitz). Simon, in particular, captures the audience’s attention as a folk singer and as various townsfolk who suffer a series of nimble dismemberments at the hands of the Toxic Avenger. Essex is hilarious as the mayor’s booty call, Professor Ken.
The onstage band is led by music director Jake Null. Perched on top of set designer Patti Kalil’s two-story construction, the band keeps the energy high as actors whiz past them and the large vat of toxic goo below.
If you try really hard, you will find a message of environmental stewardship running through The Toxic Avenger: Don’t pollute, pick up your trash, don’t let NYC bribe you into storing all its toxic waste. But at its heart, The Toxic Avenger is just one prolonged Jersey joke set to rock music with lots of gags. And that makes for a night of wicked fun.
Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Additional credits: Lighting Design by Katie McCreary, Sound Design by Gordon Nimmo-Smith, Dance Choreography by Ashleigh King, Fight Choreography by Casey Kaleba, Properties Design by Alekx Shines, Projection Design by Kylos Brannon, Stage Management by Abby Wasserman.