So Citizens of Tromaville — both of you! — we must form a lynch mob! A frenzied, blood-thirsty lynch mob that doesn’t care about fair process or judicial procedure! A lynch mob hopped up on moral righteousness and malt liquor! A lynch mob that just wants to kill a terrorist, no questions asked, just like the Patriot Act says we can!
— Mayor Babs Belgoody
"Wash your face, Melvin, you’re gonna be late for school,” may not sound like the funniest line you have ever heard, but it warrants the roar of laughter, when spoken by Melvin’s mother Ma Ferd (Nancy Opel), who appears only slightly annoyed at the sight of the disfigured mutant covered in green slime who stands before her. Melvin (Nick Cordero), her formerly nerdy, puny, unattractive son, has been turned into a raging, rampaging hulk with superhuman strength after being dropped into a vat of toxic goo by a couple of bullies. Even though Ma Ferd declares with motherly honesty, “You’ve always been a disappointment to me,” she has yet to hear about the events that have led the now utterly repulsive Melvin to embark on a heroic, vigilante-styled crusade to clean up the toxic wasteland known as New Jersey.
The new and riotously goofy musical, “The Toxic Avenger,” with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro (who also wrote the book and lyrics to “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) and music and lyrics by David Bryan (a founding member of and keyboardist for Bon Jovi), revels in Melvin’s bone-crunching, body-mutilating spree — or should we say commitment — to rid his home town of Tromaville of its toxic waste and also to expose the skullduggery of its corrupt Mayor (also played by Opel). But can Melvin fend off the bullies and still find time for romance with Sarah (Audra Blaser), the pretty, sexy, but also ditsy blind (and blond) librarian?
DiPietro and Bryan based this spoof on Lloyd Kaufman’s 1985 low budget horror film comedy. They take some liberties with the original plot but not with the outrageous grotesqueries and over-the-top violence that defined the film. Just as the creators of “Xanadu” managed to turn what many believe to be the worst movie musical of all time into a campy romp, DiPietro and Bryan have retooled the madcap mayhem of another flop-at-the-box-office film, which became a midnight showing must for the same crowd who catapulted “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to fame and fortune. For its sheer audacity and its comical execution (and there are plenty of gruesome executions, included severed arms and legs and heads), the musical stage adaptation works.
As directed with by John Rando, “The Toxic Avenger” is fast, furious, and fun. It will most likely appeal to audiences looking for laughs at the expense of logic and for lunacy at the expense of credibility. Yet if you look deep enough, there is a social and moral directive hidden in the goo. If “The Toxic Avenger” lacks the campy wit that made “Xanadu” unique or the sexual perversity that ignited “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and its subsequent stage version, it does have the wild and wacky adulation of the mutant-to-the-rescue genre.
Bryan has written a theater-friendly rock score that is easily assimilated. On one occasion, his often sardonic lyrics suggest shades of “Sweeney Todd” and prompt considerable laughter; for example this one sung by a street folk singer:
“Lemme tell ya a story ’bout
A man with a strange complexion,
He killed a lotta folks And made a strange connection
By day, he had a girl
Who baked him homemade breads
By night, he roamed the streets
And ripped off people’s heads.”
It remains for the small cast of just five super troupers to keep the heads rolling and the bodies rocking. Multiple role-playing puts virtually everyone to the test. Opel not only plays the bossy Ma Ferd and the evil Mayor Babs Belgoody with deliriously mocking conviction but a sassy nun, as well. In the show’s funniest scene, she appears simultaneously — and hilariously — as both Ma Ferd and the Mayor. You have to see it to believe it. Opel, who garnered a Tony nomination for her role in “Urinetown,” is a hoot, whose energy and comedic esprit is a vital part of the action.
Even under tons of makeup, Nick Cordero delivers a knock-out performance as the hapless but hell-bent Melvin. Blazer earns laughs as the loopy and klutzy Sarah, but none more than the one she gets as she attempts to put library books back on the shelf. Demond Green and David Josefsberg, billed as Black Dude (Green) and White Dude (Josefsberg), get the brunt of the Toxic Avenger’s wrath as town bullies Sluggo and Bozo, sanitation workers, members of a lynch mob, and others. But they are at their versatile best as derriere-wiggling and body-shimmying female beauticians and as a pair of rhythm and blues backup singers.
As you might expect, special effects and prosthetics, the creations of John Dods, are ingeniously employed and are major visual assets. The talents of master fight director Rick Sordelet are certainly given the acid test in the many confrontations between Melvin and his assorted attackers.
The main feature of Beowulf Boritt’s terrific set design is the town’s dumping ground, notable for its mounds of contaminated vats. A revolving stage allows various locations to appear swiftly under the toxic glow of Ken Posner’s lighting. Gender role-switching also gives costume designer David Woolard an excuse to unleash his giddy side.
Whether the show, now having its world premiere, has what it takes to make it in New York as planned is questionable. It does, however, have the essential elements needed to keep younger adults, particularly older teens, amused in many regional and community theaters.
“The Toxic Avenger,” through Sunday, November 2, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunwick. $28 to $64. 732-246 – 7717.