For decades, Broadway producers have found success adapting popular movies into stage musicals. Obvious examples include a kingdom full of Disney princesses, while more recent critical and commercial hits include shows like “The Color Purple” and “Waitress.”
Oh, and there’s also “The Toxic Avenger: The Musical.”
It’s an unexpected starting point for a musical comedy, but writers Joe Dipietro and David Bryan successfully turned the 1984 cult classic film into an award-winning stage show, with an extended off-Broadway run in 2009 and a revival in London’s off-West End earlier this year.
In New Orleans, “The Toxic Avenger” gets its regional premiere at the Theatre at St. Claude through Oct. 31, presented by See 'Em On Stage.
Directed by Christopher Bentivegna, “The Toxic Avenger” is like a comic book come to life, complete with tough-talking bad guys, a reluctant superhero and a damsel in distress that gets caught in the middle.
The opening number, “Who Will Save New Jersey,” introduces audiences to the small town of Tromaville, New Jersey, near “an exit called the 13B, right off the turnpike where it smells just like pee.”
The song sets the tone for the whole show: silly, a little naughty and a lot of fun.
In the first act, the show’s protagonist, Melvin Ferd the Third, uncovers the mayor’s plot to turn Tromaville into a dumping ground for toxic waste from Manhattan. When the mayor’s thugs dunk Melvin head-first into a barrel of toxic goo, he emerges bigger, stronger and considerably uglier, determined to expose the mayor and save his city from environmental disaster.
The real heroes in “The Toxic Avenger” are the cast, five talented performers taking on multiple roles, immersing themselves in the comic-book melodrama and ridiculousness of the tale, while also displaying some serious song-and-dance chops.
Kevin Murphy plays both Melvin and the Toxic Avenger, a reluctant superhero who develops the confidence and righteousness of a lonely nerd finally turning the tables on the town bullies. His transformation is made complete by the goofy, creepy mask designed by Daniel Jouet.
Elyse McDaniel is Melvin’s love interest, a comically inept blind librarian. The character is sexually supercharged, played by McDaniel with an over-the-top throaty breathlessness.
The buxom and brassy mayor is played by Janie Heck, who also plays Melvin’s mother, an equally tough nut who’ll do anything for her boy.
Eli Timm and Luke Halpern do a lot of heavy lifting throughout the show, playing various thugs, girlfriends and townsfolk.
The production values of “The Toxic Avenger” are decidedly do-it-yourself, with Bentivegna’s set design consisting primarily of an oversized “Welcome to Tromaville” sign and a few barrels of neon-colored toxic sludge. The result is a show that less resembles a Broadway-bound musical comedy than a not-ready-for-primetime sketch comedy show. (It should be noted that the cast and crew had to navigate a last-minute venue change due to ongoing delays at the yet-to-open Valiant Theatre and Lounge).
The silliness is amped up with a number of gags aimed at audiences seated in the“splatter zone.” Low-tech special effects spray gore and goo from the stage, electing squeals on opening night from delighted front row ticket-holders, only one of whom had the foresight to bring a poncho.
“The Toxic Avenger” isn’t exactly high art, and the running gags run a little long, but the campy comedy is certainly self-aware, best evidenced by a quick scene midway through in which a young man asks his date, “Should we go see a musical based on a movie most people saw when they were stoned?”
"The Toxic Avenger: The Musical"
WHERE: Theatre on St. Claude, 2240 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans
WHEN: Oct. 13-31
INFO: toxicnola.com or (504) 638-6326