The Toxic Avenger is certainly a stylised, kitsch, cult musical – takis’ set and costumes paint a vivid picture of a luminously dystopian New Jersey (or is it reality?), overrun with toxic waste that the Mayor (Natalie Hope) is dumping about town in order to make a quick buck. Nic Farman’s lighting adds harsh, cutting primary colours (mainly green); the overall visual on stage is as glaring as Andrew Johnson’s sound is loud and brash. Benji Sperring’s production is anything but subtle.
But then, does this musical fundamentally lend itself to subtlety? Taking its lead from the cult 1980s film and inspired by such stage successes as The Rocky Horror Show, Wicked and Beauty and the Beast, The Toxic Avenger has Bon Jovi’s keyboardist, David Bryan, as its composer and co-lyricist. It’s therefore unlikely to be a layered production of depth and understated efficacy. More likely it’s going to hit you between the eyes with intense melodies and heavily amplified, deep-set chords of angst and power. In this regard, The Toxic Avenger delivers in spades – it’s personified by the power vocals of the cast, with Hope leading the charge in frenzied songs such as ‘Til The Monster’s Dead’.
Having said all of that, the book and lyrics are by Joe DiPietro, who has been appropriately awarded for his turn in Memphis (also with music by Bryan), as well as producing other such hits as Allegro and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. However, the complex nature of these carefully crafted concoctions only accentuates the complete lack of depth or sophistication in The Toxic Avenger – if anything, the lyrics are the worst part of this production and require a rework to add more meaning or intelligence. Numbers such as ‘Disappointment’ are exactly that, filler material with repetitive lines and monolayered melodies that add little to the overall atmosphere other than an increased dynamic.
The Toxic Avenger comes across as intentionally pastiche, but this is no bad thing. The comedy is there for all to see, with obvious, laugh out loud moments from Ché Francis and Oscar Conlon-Murray fired out thick and fast. These two play a multitude of ancillary characters, from goonish bullies, to sassy best friends, to a duped and dumb police force. They don’t hold back – the sitcom, stereotypical characterisations hold together the essence of this production. But even these skits wane fast and there is little more of substance to be found when we scratch below the surface.
Then we get to the main characters and the whole concept morphs again from awkward. As the eponymous antihero, Toxie (Mark Anderson) is given precious little character development to work with, but delivers a nasal, stylised vocal that is at times unpleasant to hear. Love interest Sarah (Emma Salvo) is likeable enough until she consistenly hides behind her disability, as if being blind is the only conceivable way to love a freakish monster like Toxie… This aspect goes a step too far in the search for laughter; Sarah’s disability is nothing more than another way of extracting comedy. The performance is personified by the song ‘Choose Me, Oprah!’, a number that aims to deflect the situation by taking pot-shots at Oprah and Maya Angelou. ‘I don’t need intelligence because I’m blind’ is the overriding message and it’s uncomfortable to watch.
Sperring’s show makes no excuses for what it is, a bright and chintzy affair. The saving grace for The Toxic Avenger is that it doesn’t profess to be anything less; that and the strong vocal performances from all cast members bar the eponymous anti-hero himself. This is an in your face show and it sure does hit you between the eyes. Unfortunately, such a light-hearted portrayal of deep-rooted issues does not shine the show in a positive light. Yes, it tries to be humorous in its shocking delivery, an attempt to insult everybody equally and hence not be perceived as inciteful. But it doesn’t succeed – it’s just rude.
Director: Benji Sperring; Alex Beetschen (Musical Director)
Producer: Aria Entertainment and Flying Entertainment
Book & Lyrics: Joe DiPietro
Music & Lyrics: David Bryan
Writer: Lloyd Kaufman
Choreographer: Lucie Pankhurst
Design: takis; Andrew Johnson (sound); Nic Farman (lighting)
Cast: Mark Anderson; Emma Salvo; Natalie Hope; Ché Francis; Oscar Conlon-Morrey
Musicians: Alex Beetschen (keyboard); Tom Coppin (guitar); Jack Reddick (reed); Sam Pegg (bass); Bob Carr (drums)
The Toxic Avenger plays the Arts Theatre until 3 December 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.