“The Toxic Avenger: The Musical” at Rorschach Theatre is, as one of the characters says late in the show, “a wonderful musical based on a movie most people saw when they were stoned.”
The show is a tightly packed delight, with 18 songs packed into two hours, and five frenetic actors playing multiple roles. It is hard to believe this is Rorschach’s first time mounting a musical, and veteran actor Tracy Lynn Olivera’s first time directing because the seamlessness of the production make it seem like they’ve been doing this for years.
Olivera and company have produced something beautiful out of toxic sludge, and this should be just the first of many Rorschach musical productions.
The source material was barely noticed on its 1984 release but found a following due to a long-running midnight movie stint in Greenwich Village. It later became a mainstay of those 2 a.m. movie shows that aired on channels like USA Network in the ‘90s, and is today considered a cult classic and the seminal work in the genre of winking, parodical, cheap-and-quick horror films.
Joe DiPietro’s musical adaptation opened in New Brunswick, New Jersey — probably not far from the fictional Tartarus called “Tromaville” where the show takes place — before going Off-Broadway a year later. DiPietro borrowed the broad strokes and main characters of the first “Toxic Avenger” movie but crafted a new story that is a better fit for the stage. (DiPietro’s version does, however, leave the question about why the Toxic Avenger wields a mop; in the movie, he’s a janitor.)
Melvin Ferd III, played charmingly by Ricky Drummond, is the spiritual successor to Seymour Krelborn of “Little Shop of Horrors” — a meek and weak, but sweet and compassionate, young man stuck in a seedy spot. His Audrey is Sarah (Emily Levey), a blind librarian without much of a brain. The shallow gal rejects Melvin’s affections the first time she feels his face to “see” what he looks like.
Still pining for Sarah, Melvin vows to impress her by taking on Tromaville’s corrupt mayor, played by the show’s brightest light, Tess Higgins. Higgins, who also plays Melvin’s mother, is a gifted comic actor with a background improv, and she gives all her skills a workout. As the Mayor, she is simultaneously sexy and smarmy; Ma Ferd gives her a bit less to work with, but the dual role pays off in the Act One closing number, a rocking standoff in which Higgins’s two characters battle each other on stage. (Costume designer Frank Labovitz, whose choices are great throughout, deserves extra credit for his handling of this one.)
A clash with the Mayor’s goons leads to Melvin’s immersion in a vat of toxic waste, and he emerges buff and super-strong, though green and pungent. Sarah falls for this new hunk — Melvin lets her feel his chest but not his deformed face — and comes to the conclusion he is French. “Toxie” then heads off to take on the polluters, defeat the evil Mayor, save the day, and get the girl.
Levey makes Sarah increasingly insufferable as the show proceeds without making the audience hate her; in the end, we’re happy to see the two lovers get together (even if her epiphany that it’s what on the inside that matters is a bit pat). The cast is rounded out by Jordan Essex and Joshua Simon as an assortment of comic characters. Simon’s ability to contort his body amount to a superpower in itself; the man all but folds himself at various points. Both he and Essex flawlessly keep up the pace with rushed quick-changes and character shifts.
Patti Kalil’s set design is inspired. Entering the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, the audience passes by wrinkled reproductions of Reagan-era rock and punk show posters; entering the theatre itself, we pass by increasing clutter before arriving at a stage designed as a garbage dump, with an elevated orchestra pit, the Oz-like spires of cleaner Manhattan in the background, and projection screens perched above the bubbling vat where Melvin involuntarily finds his superhero destiny. (That orchestra, by the way, is also terrific.)
Any flaws in the show are the fault of DiPietro’s book, which gets slightly uneven in the middle and which relies a bit too heavily on New Jersey jokes. (Also, while Sarah’s blindness is essential to the plot, some of the jokes about her disability seem like cheap shots.) Olivera and company have produced something beautiful out of toxic sludge, and this should be just the first of many Rorschach musical productions.
Running Time: Two hours with one 10-minute intermission.
“The Toxic Avenger: The Musical” runs through March 1, 2010, at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road in Silver Spring. Click here for tickets and information.