Do you remember The Toxic Avenger? A cult film from the eighties about a little nerd who gets drenched in chemicals and becomes a violent, deformed mutant hero? Bad production value but an excess of gore, camp, and ridiculousness? You probably saw it back in the day or maybe discovered it on a lazy weekend when you were in college. It’s terrific. And it’s trash. And like many trash cult movies, it inspired a musical. The Toxic Avenger (the musical) has moved into the CLO Cabaret, and it has come to party.
The musical loosely adapts the story of the movie, which was pretty loose to begin with. Melvin Ferd the Third (a nerd) discovers that large amounts of green nuclear waste is being dumped into the rivers of his beloved Tromaville, New Jersey. When he confronts the corrupt Mayor she orders her goons to dispose of him. The bullies dump him in a barrel of the deadly goo and, with an outrageous display of arm-ripping violence, the Toxic Avenger is born. He continues his quest to clean up Tromaville while also trying to win the love of sweet and pretty librarian Sarah…who’s blind.
Katie Sexton is hilarious as Sarah, getting huge laughs with simple moves like looking the wrong way at someone or just saying “Sorry. I’m blind!” when asked for help. Meanwhile Evan Ruggiero destroys (heh heh) as Toxie, clearly enjoying himself as he tears off limbs and belts his way through the carnage. His voice also brings some heartbreaking soul to Toxie’s sadder moments, like the song “You Tore My Heart Out.” Toxie is gross and disgusting but Ruggerio makes him a lovable, if temperamental, hero.
Stealing the show is the remaining ensemble who play the roles of everyone else. Quinn Patrick Shannon (who just played “everyone else” in The 39 Steps) and Billy Mason are “White Dude” and “Black Dude”, respectively, who change characters at an incredible pace. Seriously, they’re everywhere: good guys, bad guys, men, women, old, young, cops, doctors…the list feels endless. Shannon and Mason have a different voice and physicality for each one, and they can land a strong joke even if it isn’t on the page. They also have incredible voices, showcased when Shannon plays a folk singer who enthusiastically wails out “The Legend of the Toxic Avenger” or when Mason croons a sexy duet with the evil Mayor about how “Evil is Hot.”
Caroline Nicolian rounds out the cast as the aforementioned Mayor, while also sharing the role of Melvin’s disappointed mother. The dual roles build to a head at the end of Act 1 where the Mayor confronts Ma, her old rival from back in the day. Using methods like hiding behind curtains, swapping wigs, and some hilariously unconvincing stunt doubles, the women “confront” each other in the throw down number “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore”. Nicolian, who’s hilarious as both characters throughout the night, shines here as she rapidly changes personas and belts her face off.
The city of Tromaville is represented with fantastic trash dump scenery, with doors hiding behind rusted walls and things like office chairs formed from metal barrels. The bright colors of the costumes really pop against the dingy metallic background of the set. Wigs are big and fun and really help complete the cartoon-like vibe the show has, as does the eyeball that hangs out of Toxie’s socket (everyone hates it).
While previous Cabaret productions have been a bit silly in tone, none have quite taken it to the level that Toxic Avenger has. It’s campy and it’s proud and loud about it. The plot isn’t likely to raise any internal questions you may have about life or the world, but it’s damn entertaining. Sarah learns about overcoming flaws in the ones you love, while Melvin finds the confidence he needs to stand up and fight for what he believes in. You’ll root for their love: she’s blind, he’s disgusting, and they’re both kind of a mess.
“It’s silly” an astute woman at the table next to mine said at intermission. “Yeah,” her friend said, “but we need that.” Righto, ladies. The Toxic Avenger will be keeping street safe for the next two months and I would highly recommend visiting the CLO Cabaret to visit him. And if you don’t like it, remember: He’ll rip your face right off.
Special thanks to the CLO for complimentary press tickets. The Toxic Avenger runs through December 18 at the CLO Cabaret. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.