Let us take a fun trip back in time to the year 1984. Reagan got re-elected, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek made his debut, Purple Rain blew the world’s collective mind, George Orwell was proven only kinda right about his predictions, and the world was introduced to the first superhero from New Jersey, the Toxic Avenger.
First shown in the movie that gave him his name, the Toxic Avenger was a product of Troma Entertainment, a company famous for making low-budget exploitation films. As a lifelong fan of exploitation films of almost all kinds, I consider Troma to be one of the best sources out there for schlock. However, Toxic Avenger was their magnum opus, eventually becoming the symbol for the studio. It was also their first “horror” film, rather than the raunchy comedies they’d done previously. While it tanked at the box office, it followed the The Rocky Horror Picture Show model and started being a regular midnight movie at independent theaters. The movie was famous for its dark humor and cartoonishly over-the-top-gory ultraviolence. I recommend it to everyone who likes those things.
Toxic Avenger eventually got two terrible sequels, an amazing Avengers-style crossover sequel with other Troma products like Sgt. Kabukiman, a cartoon series, a video game, and a comic book by Marvel. But no one was prepared for what was coming next: The Toxic Avenger: The Musical!
Okay, you’d naturally assume this was a crazy college project or something, especially since there had already been an amateur production called “Toxic Avenger: The Musikill,” but you couldn’t be more wrong about this particular adaptation. This was made by Joe DiPietro (who wrote I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) and David Bryan (of Bon Jovi), the team that created the Tony Award-winner for Best Musical Memphis. So, after creating a long-running and highly celebrated production, this was the logical next step. And it is beautiful. The video I watched was not of the original production, but instead of the West End run. It hasn’t been performed on Broadway yet, sadly.
Quick note before we start: There are only 5 people in this play. One plays The Toxic Avenger, one plays his love interest, one plays his mother/a nun/the villain, and the remaining two play all the other roles.
So, the musical starts with the White Dude (Oscar Conlon-Morrey) and the Black Dude (Ché Francis) dumping a bunch of toxic waste from Manhattan in the one place where no one would ever notice: New Jersey. Specifically, a town of the Jersey Turnpike called Tromaville (applause). They’re joined by a nun (Natalie Hope), who decries the state of the state, begging for someone to save them. That person appears on stage as Melvin Ferd the Third (Ben Irish), a scrawny nerd (oh dang, that rhymes). He vows to clean up Tromaville, before getting beaten up by the local bullies and meeting the one person who appreciates the beauty of New Jersey: Blind Sarah (Emma Salvo), the librarian. Oh, and all of this is to song (“Who Will Save New Jersey?”).
Melvin attempts to woo Sarah at the library, only to get rejected after she feels his face, something even he admitted he knew was going to happen. He settles for reading the town records to find out who is dumping the toxic sludge. The two bullies show up and harass Sarah, leading Melvin to say he loves her, something she mercifully pretends didn’t happen. Melvin discovers that the town Mayor, Babs Belgoody (Hope), is behind the dumping and goes to confront her… right after her supervillain solo explaining that she’s corrupt and taking a ton of bribes to allow dumping (“Jersey Girl”). When confronted with the evidence Melvin’s gathered, the Mayor swears she’s changed and puts Melvin in charge of cleaning up the town… right before telling the bullies, who work for her, to get rid of Melvin.
The pair dangle Melvin over a toxic waste dump, but one of them gets confused over being told to “let him go,” and dumps him into the vat of sludge. Sarah, walking nearby, finds the bullies next to the vat. They attempt to sexually assault her, only to be interrupted by a theatre-shaking roar that causes Sarah to feint. Melvin emerges, now transformed into the greatest superhero of the modern era, the Toxic Avenger! He quickly dispatches the pair in a grotesquely brutal manner and in a very straightforward song (“Kick Your Ass”). He then carries Sarah off.
When Sarah wakes up, Melvin tells her he’s toxic, but she thinks that’s a French name that she pronounces “Toxie.” While Melvin refuses to let her touch his face, she feels his surprisingly toned body and decides she’s super horny for him in song form (“My Big French Boyfriend”). Meanwhile, Melvin sings about how he’s terrified of what would happen if she were to find out what he really looks like (“Thank God She’s Blind”). After returning home, Melvin is discovered by his mother (Hope), who deduces literally everything that happened nonchalantly while offering to make him breakfast. She then sings about how much of a disappointment he is to her while sending him to her doctor (“Big Green Freak”). The doctor refers him to the local mad doctor, Professor Ken (Francis), who cannot cure Melvin, but tells him that the only thing that would kill him is bleach.
“Toxie” goes back to see Sarah, who tries to seduce him. Still insecure, it doesn’t really go well, until he makes literally the worst joke to make to a blind person: How did Stevie Wonder burn his hand? Fortunately, Sarah provides the punch-line (He tried to read the waffle iron) before revealing that she did actually burn herself that way. The pair then finally really connect in a beautiful duet and some tasteful non-boning (“Hot Toxic Love”). If the title of that song sounds like it was sung by Tim Curry in Fergully: The Last Rainforest, it was not. Tim Curry’s song was just “Toxic Love,” and was only hot because Tim Curry was singing it.
Melvin goes to stop the next shipment of toxic waste, confronting the Mayor and the Chief of Police (Francis). The Mayor tells him that she’s going to get rid of him, however, a passing folk singer (Conlon-Morrey) recounts that, as the Toxic Avenger, Melvin quickly becomes a hero to the community, despite the number of times he decapitated and dismembered the bad people (“The Legend of the Toxic Avenger”).
The Mayor goes to Professor Ken to find out how to get rid of the Toxic Avenger, but Ken refuses… right up until the Mayor offers him sex (“Evil is Hot”). No one blames him. Meanwhile, Melvin’s mother is at the salon with her two stylists, Lorenzo and Lamas, who tell her that the Mayor, revealed to be her oldest enemy, is coming to see her. The Mayor arrives, and what is without a doubt the most impressive performance not only in this musical but also in almost any musical begins. You have to remember that the Mayor and Mother Ferd are both played by the same actress, who now performs both sides of a duet using quick changes and singing in two very distinct voices (“Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore”). Also, the song is pretty damned awesome. Finally, it caps off by having Hope come out dressed as both characters and sing against herself. It reminds me of “Confrontation” from Jekyll and Hyde, but somehow more impressive as a performance, if not as a song.
Back at Sarah’s place, Sarah has finally finished writing her memoirs and she utters a prayer in song to the highest power she can: Oprah Winfrey (“Choose Me, Oprah!”). She attempts again to seduce “Toxie,” but he still refuses to let her touch his face. The Mayor declares martial law to catch Melvin and breaks into Sarah’s apartment. She tells Sarah that “Toxie” is actually a horrible mutant who has killed multiple people. After the Mayor leaves, Melvin returns and confirms it to be true, but Sarah tells him it’s okay. He finally tells her his secret identity and lets her touch his face, believing her to love him for who he is inside. However, she immediately tells him they need to see other handicapped people.
Melvin, now broken emotionally, goes on an angry rampage in song form (“Everybody Dies!”). However, during this he ends up killing a seemingly harmless old woman for polluting rather than recycling. Don’t f*ck with Captain Planet from Jersey, kids. However, he finally regrets what he’s done and pines for Sarah (“You Tore My Heart Out”). At a café which is named after the musical Hamilton, Sarah is sad about Melvin, but can’t think about taking him back. Melvin’s mother arrives and tells Sarah that she needs to go ahead and accept Melvin for who he is. After all, as they sing, all men are freaks (“All Men Are Freaks”).
The Mayor beseeches Tromaville to join together and get rid of Melvin via lynch mob consisting of comically incompetent and mildly inconvenienced townsfolk (“The Chase”). This contains a very Scooby-Doo hallway-esque vibe with people coming off and on stage in ridiculous states. Also, Sarah trips at one point and the entire show stops to attempt to help her get her white cane (the blind walking stick thing), including several bits of what appear to be improv, because they end up sending the cast into fits of seemingly genuine laughter. The Folk Singer even comes out at one point to turn it into another ballad before being silenced by the Mayor. The Mayor and the townspeople eventually catch up with the Toxic Avenger and the Mayor prepares to shoot him with a Super Soaker filled with bleach. Sarah arrives, however, and tells everyone that the old woman Melvin killed was actually a child sex-trafficker who downloaded songs illegally (being a musical, the latter is treated more seriously). Sarah then tries to shoot the Mayor, but, being blind, only shoots the citizens. She finally hits the Mayor, who tries to overact her demise until being executed by the band.
However, the Mayor managed to hit the Toxic Avenger with a shot of bleach, leaving him dying on the ground. Sarah tries to revive him with the Power of Love, but that’s just an 80s song, so it doesn’t do anything. Professor Ken tells her that the only thing that can save him would be the most disgusting liquid on the face of the Earth. Mother Ferd promptly arrives with a glass of water from the Thames in London (the show’s at the West End, originally it was from the Hudson). The Toxic Avenger is revived, punching Sarah in the face by accident, then agreeing to marry her. Toxie recounts that, during his death, he was visited by a higher power, who told him to meet with every politician on Earth and tell them to stop polluting the planet or else murder them violently. The play then skips forward to the next election year where candidate Toxie Ferd the Third wins the governorship of New Jersey under his platform of “be kind and be green or else I will murder you.” He’s accompanied by Sarah and his blind, green baby, who reveal that they’ve moved all toxic waste to Vermont. (“Brand New Day in New Jersey”).
It’s true that musical adaptations of films have become much more prolific in the last few decades, they’re usually something that had musical aspects in the original or were at least popular films. Sure, cult classic adaptations like Evil Dead: The Musical exist and are amazing, but those usually are made by relative amateurs. This was written by two guys who won three Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score.
And it is amazing.
It’s not possible to convey in a review, but the songs in this are all solid and hilarious. My personal favorite song has to be “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore,” but it’s hard to be objective when you’re watching someone really nail a solo duet. They’re all comedy gold. The production looks cheap, to be sure, but that seems to be intentional as it really is in line with the source material. The actors break the fourth wall all the time, but I don’t know if there is even supposed to be a fourth wall in a musical production. They regularly interact with and respond to the audience, sometimes in planned ways and sometimes as spontaneous reactions. There’s a lot of slapstick versions of the gory antics of the original film as well.
Look, this isn’t an epic musical like Wicked or Phantom, but it wasn’t supposed to be. They even mock both of those within the show. This is just a fun time bringing back memories of a classic B-movie, but if you haven’t seen the original, this still works great. You can watch it here on Broadway HD, which I think lets you have free trials. Or you can stream the original film on Amazon Prime right now. Enjoy.
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