Mix the story from a 1984 cult film, the musical team that dreamed up Memphis and a marauding, ecologically motivated mutant superhero, and what’s the result? Neither Little Shop of Horrors nor Urinetown, though that kind of Off-Broadway smash is certainly what the creators of The Toxic Avenger were trying to achieve.
Book writer and lyricist Joe DiPietro, whose other successes include I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, and composer-lyricist David Bryan, a member of Bon Jovi, are the guys behind The Toxic Avenger, an Off-Broadway musical that has just kicked off the 2015-16 Actors’ Playhouse season at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables.
Artistic director David Arisco and his team have gone all-out to turn the spoofy musical into immersive theater, reconfiguring the upstairs Balcony Theatre so that the audience appears to be sitting in the toxic waste dump otherwise known as Tromaville, New Jersey. Detritus, general junk and vats full of dripping green toxic goo dot the evocative set by Gene Seyffer and Jodi Dellaventura. As Bette Davis might observe, “What a dump!”
Arisco has also loaded his cast with top-tier musical theater talent, beginning with Carbonell Award winner Clay Cartland as Melvin Ferd the Third, aka The Toxic Avenger. Laura Hodos plays his (and Tromaville’s) nemisis, Mayor Babs Belgoody, as well as Melvin’s perpetually cranky and disappointed mother, Ma Ferd. Julie Kleiner is Sarah, the town’s beautiful blonde blind librarian and the apple of Toxie’s dangling eye.
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Joshua Dogarganes and Dexter Carr are, respectively, White Dude and Black Dude; actually, the two play multiple quick-changing roles, including Sarah’s pals (and backup singers) Diane and Shinequa, Ma Ferd’s hairdressers Lorenzo and Lamas, the Mayor’s thugs Bozo and Sluggo, an HMO doc and a scientist named Ken — well, you get the jokey drift.
The band, led by musical director/keyboard player David Nagy, is perched above the action, leaving plenty of space for the actors to move around their toxic playground, belting songs like Jersey Girl, Evil Is Hot and Hodos’ pièce de résistance, Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore, in which the Mayor and Ma Ferd sing a duet. Not so easy when the same actor is playing both roles, but Hodos, Arisco et al turn the first-act closer into a frenzied sight gag.
David C. Woolard’s costumes, adapted by Ellis Tillman for this production, are the Off-Broadway originals. And Louis Zakarian’s mask and prosthestics transform Cartland from meek Melvin to the Hulk-like Toxie, who explains to Sarah that he doesn’t want her to feel his damaged, ruined face because he has “acne.”
That’s just one of the blind gags — there are so many — that pockmark The Toxic Avenger. The committed, impressive cast sells the material as if it were Grade-A satire, but the songs, lyrics and book of the musical seldom rise above C level. Cartland and Kleiner make the lovelorn mutant and sexually frustrated librarian into a sweet, funny couple, and they turn up the heat on their duet Hot Toxic Love. Hodos, whose powerful voice could peel the goo from the waste barrels without any amplification, revels in her roles as the villainous Mayor and monster Ma. Dobarganes and the crazy-funny Carr pop into and out of drag with aplomb.
Vulgar language and borderline (or over-the-line) tasteless jokes are threaded through The Toxic Avenger, which does entertain its audiences, thanks to a skillful cast, director, designers and musicians. Just don’t go expecting a Little Shop of cleverness.
If you go
What: ‘The Toxic Avenger’ by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro.
Where: Actors’ Playhouse production at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee 2 p.m. Oct. 21), through Nov. 8.
Cost: $53 Friday-Saturday, $45 other performances (10 percent senior discount, $15 student rush tickets, Saturday-Sunday excluded).
Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org.