To be sure, there are some funny, very funny bits in the campy (movie fan campy, not gay genre campy) musicalization of the Troma B movie The Toxic Avenger, about a young nerd scientist about to expose a corrupt NJ official responsible for the state’s relentless and oppressive pollution, who is dumped into a vat of chemical waste and left to die. Which of course he doesn’t, becoming instead a mutant with super powers.
In some cases I’d question the notion that pop-culture genre stories can only be musicalized as parody or satire, but where The Toxic Avenger is concerned, it’s a moot debate, as lampooning’s really the only way to go, because the source material is itself satirical, in the self-consciously gleeful way only C-grade movies actually aspiring to Plan 9-ness can be. (C-grade may be a generous rating.)
But parody of something C-grade that’s already parodistic is actually a tougher challenge than it sounds, because then the musical’s job is to overtly lampoon the stupidity that the film just kind of revels in without the extra layer of aren’t-we-stupid winky-ness. In the film, stupid comes along for the ride, as a dare I say quality that is dare I say woven into the dare I say fabric. A musical has to be consistently smart about it.
Thus a paradox: It takes a lot of wit to lampoon stupidity for 90 intermissionless minutes at a stretch. And The Toxic Avenger Musical has only a limited supply of that.
Its book by Joseph di Pietro takes great delight in creating a “large” cast out of only five actors, and in some divine gaggery. The opening joke is in fact actual gaggery: Matthew Salvidar and Desmond Green—the two utility players designated in the program as White Dude and Black Dude respectively—climb to the top of the set, which at rise is a fortress of toxic waste barrels in a perfectly bleak, toxic waste dump. Salvidar takes a breath to sing the first note—and starts to cough violently at the intake of toxic fumes.
But then he starts to sing the actual song and you in turn start to realize that the score (lyrics co-written by di Pietro and composer David Bryan of Bon Jovi) is going to suck worse than falling into a vat of the luminescent green goo. It’s not just the generic rock and limited harmonic palate, it’s also the absence of perfect rhyme and sometimes the misplacement of rhyme and/or accent. (One of the most exhaustingly repeated couplets says of the town, Tromaville, that if the pollution doesn’t get you, the aroma will. Aside from the fact that the couplet is rhythmically set in a manner that makes the notion of trick-rhyme wordplay meaningless, the couplet doesn’t actually feature a rhyme: Tromaville is a three-syllable word with the accent on syllable one; the only thing that’s supposed to change is the initial consonant; in other words it rhymes with Comaville, Home-aville, Dome-aville, Foamaville and, if you want to be especially tricky, adding a pickup syllable, Sonomaville. But not aroma will—the W is the violation.)
This may sound like splitting hairs, since we’re not, after all, in the land of Sondheimian dexterity, but then again, look at what exactitude does to elevate foolishness in Sondheim’s score for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
And something happens when that kind of slovenliness pervades a score. Which is, the audience subliminally understands that verbal wit is not a factor, so they start listening to the songs less carefully, because they’ve been given a clear signal that the songs are not going to travel far story-wise or thesis-wise, that they’ll just generally vamp along making some silly jokes on each new topic (the blind girl’s blind ignorance, the corrupt mayor’s ambition, the geek hero’s geek-osity until he becomes all green ‘n’ powerful ‘n’ shit and then his being green and slimy and having power ‘n’ shit), which means that the songs won’t really be necessary, except as a kind of sonic wallpaper for mood, which means their emotional and dramatic placement will be arbitrary, which means that they’re going to mark time between scenes, which means it’s going to be largely up to the actors and the director and the bookwriter’s reflex for sketch comedy gimmickry to gussy everything up, because neither the integrity of the dramatic structure nor of the score are providing secure support.
And while there are those who laugh throughout Toxic, perhaps because they’re so giddy with joy at the first 30 minutes or so that they don’t care about art, they’re just glad to be at the party—there are others who sit much more quietly, getting more and more exhausted, because the gags without the backup of a real architecture start to become assaultive or attenuated way beyond their welcome. (Evil Dead the Musical provided pretty much exactly the same experience, albeit with less sharp a cast and director—and speaking of those—)
Director John Rando again demonstrates that he’s a good man with comedy—he’s very much here in the pastiche-lampooning territory he trod with Urinetown—and he knows how to corral performers who understand the nuances of timing, and in this cast he has five: the two “dudes” above, plus Nick Cordero as “Toxie”, Sara Chase as Sarah as the blind girl and Nancy Opel as the corrupt mayor, Toxie’s mom and a weirdly arbitrary cameo nun. And they all, especially the redoubtable Ms. Opel, demonstrate the difference between a show that allows a performer a tour de force (as Batboy did for Deven May in the title role) and one that just makes its actors work hard. The ensemble of five pull out every possible stop, Ms. Opel in particular ascending to divine levels of insane abandon where a less savvy actress would be flailing away…but it nonetheless is a kind of madness and the abandon covers the fact that she’s working without the net of strong material; if she doesn’t go nuts, it’s exposed; if she does go nuts, who gives a shit what she’s actually saying? Think I’m kidding? When the CD comes out (and it will) follow the lyrics. You tell me.
The musical direction by Doug Katsaros is likewise attuned (pun intended) to the madness—I’ve known Doug a long time and he is one of nature’s wild men, in no need of toxic enhancement to feel the powuh, perfect casting to keep the show’s onstage band rockin’ first class…but just as with Ms. Opel’s efforts, it’s a great deal of panache in the service of very little that’s worthy of it.
All this reported, though, my evocation of Evil Dead: The Musical inspired me to look up what I wrote about it. Which was a very similar notice from—I am surprised to admit—a more generous perspective. Since that also applies, I will repeat its conclusion:
“Then again [this show] is not about the high artistic potential of musical theatre. It's about good natured stupidity and going over the top. On those terms, it functions exactly as it intends. Audiences likely to go for it will not be discriminating or possibly even discerning about the fine points.”
Or spend much time looking for them…