Goofy Throwback Fun in Short North Stage’s Toxic Avenger: The Musical
For those of us who love ‘80s B-movies, no company name evokes nostalgia like Troma Pictures. Of the Troma catalog, no franchise had the same staying power and broad appeal – through four films, comic books, and a Saturday morning cartoon – as the weirdly sweet superhero spoof The Toxic Avenger. Short North Stage launches their 2018-2019 season with the Ohio premiere of 2009 hit Off-Broadway musical adaptation with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro (from Lloyd Kaufman’s film) and music and lyrics by David Bryan, directed by Jonathan Flom.
The plot hews mostly close to the film, with mild-mannered nerd Melvin (Jesse Trieger) standing in for 1980s New Jersey, watching his town of Tromaville devolve into the dumping ground for the nuclear and chemical waste of Manhattan, gleaming right across the river and pining for his town’s blind librarian, Sarah (Lisa Glover). While trying to unravel a conspiracy behind the waste that implicates the mayor, Melvin is dunked into a vat of the toxic sludge, turning him into the titular hero.
The show, and especially Flom’s production, does a fantastic job evoking the shoe-string budget of the original film with every character other than Melvin and Sara played by Sheri Sanders (including Melvin’s Mother and the Mayor), Steven Michael Mooney (White Dude), and Johnathon Jackson (Black Dude). This strategy sets up the diy nature of the production and winks at the original’s message about the desolate, forgotten nature of New Jersey at the time.
Trieger and Glover have real chemistry and sparkle on stage. The classic quick changes and physical Keystone Kops bumbling of Mooney and Jackson are mostly delightful and Sanders’ explosive, virtuosic performance is a lot of fun to watch.
These elements in total can’t quite save the dated nature of the material. While taken mostly directly from the 1984 film, two different instances of the threat of sexual violence as a plot accelerator are cringe-inducing. The reveling in wall-to-wall stereotypes isn’t exactly offensive, but most of it isn’t very funny either.
For the enormous, beautiful set (designed by Edward Carignan who also handled costume design and choreography), I wanted more action using it. Between some marvelous set pieces, everything stops and turns into a tableau, grinding to a halt and adding to the production’s biggest problem: its length. At 75 minutes, this could have been more the gleeful, campy romp it’s trying for; at two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission, the joke in the opening song about being “18 hours long” started to feel like a warning.
DiPietro and Bryan’s songs mostly work when they recall and reference New Jersey R&B and doo-wop. Highlights there include Glover’s Bettye Lavette growl and Mooney and Jackson’s finger-snapping harmonies on “My Big French Boyfriend;” the same trio giving a lighter, Marvelettes spin on “Choose Me, Oprah;” and Sanders and the cast reading a litany of Melvin’s faults on “Disappointment.” Music director/keyboardist Zac DelMonte and his band, especially Tom Regouski on reeds, make the most of every reference and sting.
The Toxic Avenger: The Musical has a big heart and some terrific performances, but doesn’t always justify its length unless fans are already invested in the material.
The Toxic Avenger: The Musical runs through September 16 with performances at 8:00 pm Thursday and Friday, 5:00 pm and 9:00 pm Saturday, and 5:00 pm Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org.