Save the Earth. Kick a little ass. Rip out a spleen (or a spine). And do it all with a power-pop ballad in your heart. That is The Toxic Avenger: The Musical, and, in Rorschach’s hands, it is in-toxic-ating, exuberant fun.
Melvin Ferd III (Ricky Drummond), a skinny kid from Tromaville, New Jersey, wants to clean up the planet and get the girl—a beautiful blind librarian named Sarah (Emily Levey). But Tromaville is run amok with vats of toxic waste, brought in by the corrupt town Mayor (Tess Higgins) who dreams of becoming governor. Uncovering this, Melvin vows to expose the Mayor only to be pushed into a vat by her goons Bozo (Joshua Simon) and Sluggo (Jordan Essex). He emerges a buff, bad-ass mutant—with a penchant for violently disposing polluters—that the townsfolk christen “The Toxic Avenger” and that Sarah lovingly calls “Toxie.” His mother, Ma Ferd (also Higgins), is less impressed with his new form, but does all she can to help her boy get the girl and save the day.
Maybe you’ve hit superhero overload, but Toxie is not your run-of-the-mill muscle-bound, power player. He’s just a kid from New Jersey who hit it big in the 1984 B-movie/black comedy of the same name. So big, in fact, that the original film spawned two sequels, a cartoon show, comic books, and this musical, written in 2008 by Tony Award winners Joe DiPietro and David Bryan. Bryan, himself, hails from the band Bon Jovi, and that wonderful, melodic hair-metal sound infiltrates not only every song, but the whole feel of the show, which is at (most) times a kitschy, campy spectacle and at others true political commentary on saving the earth.
Opening with “Who Will Save New Jersey?”, which has to be restarted due to fits of coughing from all the pollution, the whole show is high-octane carried by a cast up to the task. It’s hard to upstage a mutant superhero, and yet Simon (Dude #1) and Essex (Dude #2), who play a number roles nearly do—whipping in an out so fast in a multitude of caricature’s that are spot on, spit-out-your-food, laugh-til-you-die fantastic. “Dude” is actually misleading as a moniker since they play an equal amount of female characters.
Simon dons a mass of curls and puffy shirt to portray the Folk Singer who strums out “The Legend of the Toxic Avenger” (much to the chagrin of the Mayor) and beseeches you to tell your children and your children’s children’s children about the legend. Essex’s Professor Ken, who is wooed by the whorish Mayor into betraying Toxie’s Kryptonite, is wonderful in their interlude, “Evil is Hot,” but yet somehow outdone by his Sheniqua—Sarah’s friend. Together, Simon and Essex are also Ma Ferd’s hairdressers, Lorenzo and Lamas (LOL), while wearing zebra striped jumpsuits. Love it.
The Toxic Avenger: The Musical closes March 1, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
And then there is Higgins, whose Mayor comes out singing, “To run the state, you must shake it down, you lie or cheat or sleep around, I do things the Jersey way…” in “Jersey Girl.” And boy does her character do all that and then some, while donning a sleek white, body-hugging jumpsuit and sky-high pumps. She’s the MVP in a show of MVPs, especially during “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” where she goes toe-to-toe, full-on girl fight with her other character, Ma Ferd. It’s riotous and shows the awesome dexterity of Higgins as a comic force.
Drummond and Levey are the grotesque heart of the show, whose love is all about accepting people for what and who they are—disability or freakish face. Levey’s Sarah is pretty much a bimbo—a sweet, good natured one you can’t but help like, like when she gets the impression that Toxie is simply French, which she shouts to her friends in “My Big French Boyfriend” after being saved from a rape by the titular hero. Drummond’s Toxie is basically the poor man’s Phantom, which gets a shout out here: a lovelorn monster who could front Skid Row while singing “You Tore My Heart Out,” “Thank God She’s Blind,” or “Hot Toxic Love,” the latter of which he duets with Levey.
The pop culture junkie in you will love this show—Bon Jovi, Oprah, and Phantom make appearances. As does the original film which Simon references, in one of his quick-change characters, “a movie most people saw when they were stoned.”
That type of tongue-in-cheek awareness works well in a show this over-the-top. Like, when Ma Ferd says, “If blind people don’t love ugly people, who will?” When else can you laugh at that? Better than that, there is a moral thread here that the original 1984 film likely never meant to stumble upon: environmental awareness. If you blink, you’ll miss it, but it’s the current running through it, and as many laughs as you get out of jokes about the aroma in New Jersey, there is a kernel of seriousness hidden beneath all the funny.
“The first bill that I plan to pass, pollute the earth and I’ll kick your ass…the second thing, and this I mean, love your brother, be he brown or green,” Toxie sings in the closing song.
It’s hard to believe this is Rorschach’s first musical production, given how practically perfect it is—thanks to director Tracy Lynn Olivera, who doubles down on the risqué and goes for broke. So, if that’s your ideal of a Saturday night, then this is your Saturday night.
The Toxic Avenger: The Musical . Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro. Music and Lyrics by David Bryan. Directed by Tracy Lynn Olivera. Music Direction by Jake Null. Featuring Ricky Drummond, Jordan Essex, Tess Higgins, Emily Levey, and Joshua Simon. Production: Patti Kalil, Set Design; Katie McCreary, Light Design; Frank Labovitz, Costume Design; Kylos Brannon, Sound Design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith, Projection Design; Casey Kaleba, Fight Choreographer; Ashleigh King, Dance Choreographer; Kristina Manente, Sound Engineer; Lee Cromwell, Production Manager; Jeremy Jackson, Associate Production Manager; Jen Bryant, Wardrobe Assistant; Scott McCormick, Voice Over; Elliot Shugoll, Master Electrician; Molly Rumberger, Understudy; and Sam Linc, Assistant Stage Manager. Musicians: Jaime Ibacache (Guitar), Jason Wilson (Bass), Dana Gardner (Reeds), and Alex Aucoin (Drums). Stage Managed by Abby Wasserman. Produced by Rorschach Theatre Company . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.