REVIEW: "THE TOXIC AVENGER"—Wayward Artist, Grand Central Arts Ctr.
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
A 98-pound Nerd from New Jersey Lands in a Vat of Toxic Waste and Becomes a Benevolent Superhero!
In a world awash with jukebox musicals and safe bets, “The Toxic Avenger” doesn’t take itself seriously. Indeed, any attempt to take it seriously is entirely missing the point. Set in a putrid, foul-smelling waste dump in New Jersey called Tromaville ("between heaven and hell, don't need a map, just follow the smell"), this romp of politically incorrect madness is self-aware, self-deprecating and above all, unreservedly hysterical.
Those of us who hoped that we might see an end to stage musicals based on low budget, gory, horror movies have been thwarted by the diabolical team of Tony Award-winning “Memphis” author Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics). In the face of their extremely funny and entertaining cult musical (the evil spawn of “Little Shop” and “Rocky Horror”), resistance to “The Toxic Avenger” is as fruitless as it is unnecessary. Go ahead. Rip out a spleen. And do it all with a power-pop ballad in your heart.
Maybe you’ve already hit superhero overload with the Marvel thing, 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 campy Lloyd Kaufman 1985 B-movie/black comedy of the same name (now in the Library of Congress). So big, in fact, that the original film spawned two sequels, a cartoon show, comic books, and this musical, written by DiPietro and 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.
The musical opened in 2008. Since then, the musical has been performed around the world and has developed a very strong fanbase. The Wayward Artist takes it now to a new dimension in a rollicking, high-octane show with upbeat musical numbers and clever lyrics, playing through May 8th. Directed by Wayward Artist Artistic Director Craig Tyrl, musically directed by Stephen Hulsey and choreographed by Keenah Armitage, the end result is a comical cross between a sweet love story (peppered with a lotta soft-core bawdiness) and the absurd tale of a mutant freak who is just trying to save his Jersey home state.
Speaking of which, the show opens with “Who Will Save New Jersey?” which has to be restarted due to fits of coughing from all the pollution. Sarah (Madison Stirrett), a blind librarian, would-be writer of best-selling novels and otherwise typical "Jersey Girl," is aghast at the destruction of her hometown. Mild-mannered Melvin (Joe Stein), a sweet-faced dweeb who is in love with Sarah, vows to end the pollution to win her heart, even though she—after feeling his face—decides that his isn't much to look at, so her interest is purely platonic.
When nerdy Melvin confronts Tromaville's ambitious and corrupt Mayor Babs Belgoody (Natalie Giannosa), who is taking pay-offs to let outsiders dump their toxic waste there, she deflects his accusations with a bogus appointment as her deputy. Caught off guard, Melvin is snatched by the mayor's goons ("Get the Geek"), the short-lived Bozo and Sluggo, dumping him into a vat of toxic waste. They leave him for dead, but Melvin emerges, transformed by the stew of bubbling waste chemicals into The Toxic Avenger, a hideous, green, 7-foot tall (use your imagination) radioactive malformation with superhuman powers, a misplaced eyeball, and a heart as big as all of Newark.
When those same goons are about to molest Sarah, he proceeds to dismember and eviscerate them, earning her adoration—and lust (there's the cue for "Thank God She's Blind"). He tries to tell her he is toxic but she interrupts, thinking that is a French name, making his appeal all the greater. She calls him “Toxie” for short, waxing romantically about "My Big French Boyfriend." As for Melvin's long-suffering mother ("and to think, all your cousins are corporate attorneys"), his transformation into a monster is par for the course, another disappointment ("Big Green Freak").
It’s really kind of hard to upstage a mutant superhero, and yet Cody Bianchi (White Dude) and Justin Crawford (Black Dude), who play a number of roles nearly do—whipping in and out so fast in a multitude of caricature’s that are so spot on, spit-out-your-food, laugh-til-you-die fantastic, you may never recover. Besides being the doomed Sluggo and Bozo (what's a lost arm, and set of intestines among friends?), the two repeatedly make astonishingly quick changes to appear in roles such as little old ladies, waste management executives, redneck police, back-up gal singers in hot little skirts, a wacky scientist, and even an HMO doctor—himself freaked out by the "Big Green Freak." Each actor brings a dynamically powerful voice that provides some of the night's best rock music numbers in crystal-clear, close-knit harmony.
Joe Stein excels in the lead role of Toxie, with a gentle touch to his monster and melodic vocals that particularly shine in the song “You Tore My Heart Out.” Playing opposite, Ms. Stirrett as schmaltzy, sightless, sexually promiscuous librarian Sarah, soon proves to be not the timid stereotype originally expected, begging her idol to "Choose Me, Oprah!" Sarah has an itch to get in bed with a hot man, and the slimy green, rock-hard chest of her new-found hero is just enough to send her into "Hot Toxic Love."
Another one, hot as a firecracker and full of menace and power, Ms. Giannosa’s rock-star voice easily trumpets the power-commanding attention demanded as Mayor as well as with Ma Ferd’s crusading vocals fighting for her son’s survival. She is quite seductive when, as Babs, she seduces Professor Ken (Mr. Crawford) in order to force him to reveal to her Toxie's "kryptonite." She is also great trying to convince Sarah not to give up on Melvin/Toxie, because, after all, "All Men are Freaks." But in a personality twist as Mayor Babs and Melvin's mother (both greatly crafted comic gems), you really need to be there when Ms. Giannosa inhabits both women simultaneously (“Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore”).
Leaving little dry air between the sea of jokes, lively musical numbers, and inventive staging, here is a musical designed for those seeking a source of liberating entertainment larded with endless clever tongue-in-cheek humor. It’s a show that's way, way more fun than an arch musical about a slime creature has any right to be. Anyone looking for high art or a message should look elsewhere, but fans, musical junkies and those with an adventurous streak will eat this up. Like me, it might just slap a goofy smile on your face too.
THE WAYWARD ARTIST PRESENTS, THE TOXIC AVENGER, Performing April 22nd through May 8th ; Book & Lyrics JOE DIPIETRO; Music & Lyrics DAVID BRYAN; Director/Artistic Director/Sound Designer CRAIG TYRL; Musical Director STEPHEN HULSEY; Choreographer KEENAH ARMITAGE; Assistant Choreographer HAYLEY TRITTIN; Managing Director MAURI SMITH; Production Manager SYDNEY FITZGERALD; Stage Manager THAIES QUEZADA; Assistant Director/ASM AUNGKHINE MIN; Costume/Makeup Designer MARCI ALBERTI; Lighting Designer HARRISON HAUG; Properties Designer NATALIE SILVA; Scenic Designer KRISTIN CAMPBELL; Assistant Scenic Designer KYLIE BAUMBUCSH.
WITH: Melvin Ferd The Third/The Toxic Avenger JOE STEIN; Sarah MADISON STIRRETT; Mayor Babs Belgoody/Ma Ferd/Nun NATALIE GIANNOSA; White Dude CODY BIANCHI; Black Dude JUSTIN CRAWFORD.
The Toxic Avenger continues performances Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30PM, Sundays at 2PM in the Grand Central Arts Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, 92701. Season Tickets and Box Office: 657-205-6273. Tickets Online at: https://www.thewaywardartist.org/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Francis Gacad Photography