By Manning Harris
Some of my most cherished theatrical memories involve completely wacky, hilarious Off-Broadway plays such as “Bat-Boy,” Charles Busch’s “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” and “Women Behind Bars,” starring the late Divine—to this day perhaps the funniest two hours I’ve ever spent in a theatre.
Thank goodness Horizon Theatre has a sense of humor and the ridiculous: They are now holding forth with “The Toxic Avenger,” running through March 13, and what a welcome breath of polluted air (you’ll get the joke later) it is. With all the serious political angst currently being flung at us, scary local, national and world headlines, we need a show where the only real slaughter is demolition by laughter.
This “The Toxic Avenger” does with ease. Based on a 1980’s movie, this musical play won Off-Broadway’s 2009 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and has garnered a sizable cult following. With direction by Heidi McKerley, music direction by S. Renée Clark, choreography by Ms. McKerley and Jeff McKerley, and a sparkling cast of five incredibly versatile actor-singer-dancers, this show rocks with non-stop energy.
Not far from a toxic waste dump off the New Jersey Turnpike lies the charming little town of Tromaville (think Traumaville). Melvin Ferd the Third, aka The Toxic Avenger (Nick Arapoglou), is an environmentalist who’s a dedicated pacifist. “I hate any form of conflict,” he says to his would-be girlfriend Sarah (Julissa Sabino), who later calls him Toxie. She is a blind librarian, who’s writing a book she’d love Oprah to recommend.
The mayor of this burg is the ruthless, ambitious Babs Belgoody (Leslie Bellair), who for political reasons opposes Melvin’s environmental plans, and she has two thugs throw him in a vat of toxic goo. The thugs are White Dude (Austin Tijerina) and Black Dude (Michael Stiggers); both of these actors play multiple roles, tirelessly and dazzlingly. Ms. Bellair also plays Ma Ferd, Melvin’s non-supportive mother. “You’ve always been a disappointment,” she cheerfully tells her son.
However—Melvin is not destroyed in the vat of death; instead he emerges as a lean, green, muscled Toxic Avenger. His face, however, is still rough to the touch, and the blind Sarah is still not ready for a relationship, but she is quite turned on (“Hot Toxic Love”). Now Mayor Babs has an opponent worthy of her; can she find an Achilles heel in him, as Kryptonite is for Superman?
If all this seems outlandish and campy and unbelievable, it is, of course; and lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer/lyricist David Bryan (yes, they wrote “Memphis”) glory in the silliness and have fun topping themselves. You’ll have tons of fun yourself, unless you turn into an absolute fuddy-duddy, in which case you’ll miss quite a party.
It goes without saying that this gleeful, kinetic comedy would not work without an extremely talented cast, and Horizon’s got that cast, in spades. In a way, the show is like a series of integrated musical skits worthy of a top notch company, say, Chicago’s Second City.
Let’s see: I count at least four Suzi Bass Awards from Nick Arapoglou, Leslie Bellair, and Austin Tijerina alone. And I well remember standout performances from both Julissa Sabino and Michael Stiggers in Actor’s Express’ “Rent” from last summer. Oops—Tijerina was in “Rent” also, and won a Suzi for his performance.
The point is that these people are all expert singers, actors, and dancers; they are total performers, and they lift you out of your seat with their energy, joy, and talent. The songs are campy, fun, and some are deliciously R-rated (but not vulgar). We have great musicians and a fun set by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay. The pace is snappy.
Finally, it’s hard to resist a lovable nerd who becomes a superhero; I think many of us secretly identify. Toxie and company are waiting.
For tickets and information, visit horizontheatre.com.