Dallas — The Toxic Avenger is a deeply profound work of art about the environmental catastrophe earth is hurtling towards thanks to the inexplicable number of climate change deniers in America.
The musical, based on the 1984 Troma film, is stupid as hell. That green, slimy point must be understood for a successful production, which happens at Uptown Players under the direction of Jeremy Dumont.
Troma is the film company created in the 1970s by filmmakers Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Hertz, who were into low-budget movies that riffed on 1950’s sci-fi and other pop culture—even Shakespeare (see 1996’s Tromeo and Juliet). They shared the same anti-Hollywood, comic book-loving mindset that spawned filmmakers like Roger Corman in the 1950s, John Waters in the ’70s and Sam Raimi in the ’80s. They had different aesthetics, but as is inevitable with such artists, they flirted with the establishment (or, in Raimi's case, became it) while keeping it at a prosthetic arm’s length.
It’s interesting that each of these filmmakers has had stage musicals created from some of their best-known films: Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, John Waters’ Hairspray (and Cry-Baby), and Raimi’s Evil Dead the Musical. In the context of theater, musicals are the establishment.
The Toxic Avenger, which has music and lyrics by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and book and lyrics by hit-maker Joe DiPietro (the same team behind the Tony-winning Memphis), doesn’t have as strong of a hook that makes each of the aforementioned musicals artistically successful. Little Shop has insanely tuneful music that references Motown and doo-wop, and that wonderful bloodthirsty flora. Hairspray also has music inspired by doo-wop and some of the most earwormy tunes of any musical written in this century—not to mention the element of drag (Hairspray was the last major film role for Divine, and the first Waters film that didn’t feel low-budget and DIY). Evil Dead has a terrific gimmick: lots of blood and a splatter zone, in which patrons on the front rows wear white T-shirts and hope for a bloodbath.
The music in Toxic is generic pop-rock (played with verve by music director/conductor Adam C. Wright and four other band musicians), but it’s fun to hear from an actor in the costume of a muscle-bound green creature with an eyeball hanging out of its socket (“Toxie,” played by John Campione).
The story: nerd Melvin Ferd the Third (Campione) has long crushed on Sarah the Blind Librarian (Katie Porterfield), but he’s bullied and thrown into a vat of toxic sludge in the New Jersey town of Tromaville, which turns him into a mutant with superhero strength. His heart of gold remains, except for the whole ripping-limbs-off-people-who-piss-him-off thing. Belter Shelby-Martin plays the evil Mayor Babs Belgoody and Melvin’s mother—and both at the same time in one cleverly staged and hilarious number.
It’s the stuff of b-movies, and the musical goes even more over-the-silly-top with the device of using two actors billed as Black Dude (Walter Lee) and White Dude (Clint Gilbert) playing multiple characters, with quick changes, wild accents and wacky wigs (by Coy Covington). Lee as Sarah’s gum-smacking, hair-dressing BFF is a highlight.
Campione, a former Dallas actor who has wowed on Uptown’s stage before, is now based in New York (he was in the tour of The Bridges of Madison County that stopped at Dallas Summer Musicals this year), returns to play Toxie. His big voice suits it, and he lets the costume take over as a Frankenstein’s monster with good intentions. Director Dumont works in some fun bits with Sarah’s blindness; you don’t have to be PC with this level of camp and off-color humor. Porterfield is a mix of goofy and vampy, and her voice blends well with Campione’s in the power ballad “Hot Toxic Love.”
The big green mutant becomes the “normal” character, and everyone else is the freakshow.
Uptown rented the sets and Toxie costume from the 2012 production at Houston’s Alley Theatre, which had the same creative team as the off-Broadway debut: set by Beowulf Borritt, costumes by David C. Woolard, mask/prosthetics by Louis Zakarian. It fills out the Kalita Humphreys stage with multiple levels of barrels of green ooze and lots of hiding places where bloody snippets of action happen. The centerpiece on the Kalita’s turntable allows for scenes in the mayor’s office, Sarah’s apartment, a laundry room, etc. silliness of the quick costume and character changes with Lee, Gilbert and Shelby-Martin. (Check out the photos on the wall of the mayor's Joisey office.)
If anything, Uptown’s big budget and large space makes it a bit too slick—this is a show that, like Evil Dead the Musical, would benefit from a more intimate space, scrappier production values and gorier gore, befitting its b-movie predecessor.
You could stretch and find a message of environmental consciousness and corporate greed (although not nearly as clever as a musical like Urinetown), but ultimately The Toxic Avenger wants to be nothing more than stupid, escapist fun.
We could all use some of that right now.