Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In fact, The Toxic Avenger turns out to be a great idea for a musical. While, like the film, it makes a modest statement about the evils of toxic waste and collusion of big business and politics (still sadly pertinent 34 years its release), it is mostly a good-hearted, snarky and giddy send-up of creature-features and super-hero flicks. The book and music were created by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, respectively (they collaborated on lyrics), who went on to win Tony awards for the score and book of Memphis a few years later. The director of the show's first appearance at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, was John Rando, who knew his way around off-beat material after winning a won a Tony directing the similarly toned Urinetown. Armed with a crackerjack team, The Toxic Avenger emerged as a delightful, goofy, slightly ghoulish romp.
None of that is wasted by Minneapolis Musical Theatre, whose production now playing at the Phoenix Theatre in Uptown is a blast in every way. The five cast members all are terrific and throw themselves 110% into their performances; the four-piece band sounds great (and, positioned center stage amid the fun, do a yeomen's job of keeping straight faces); the show is swiftly paced by director Ryan McGuire Grimes, leaving little dry air between the sea of jokes, lively musical numbers, and inventive staging; and the design crew has provided just the right look and sound. This is way more fun, and more polished, than an arch musical about a slime creature has any right to be.
The audience is greeted by the sounds of an industrial Jersey harbora medley of machines, trucks, ships' horns, waves lapping, and gulls cawing. The show opens with an introduction to Tromaville, New Jerseythe most polluted in New Jersey, which is saying something ("Who'll Save New Jersey?"). Sarah, a blind librarian, would-be writer of best-selling novels and otherwise typical "Jersey Girl," is aghast at the destruction of her hometown. Melvin, a sweet-faced dweeb who is in love with Sarah, vows to end the pollution to win her heart, even though sheafter feeling his facedecides that his isn't much to look at, so her interest is purely platonic.
When Melvin confronts Tromaville's ambitious and corrupt Mayor Babs Belgoody, who is taking pay-offs to let outsiders dump their toxic waste there, she deflects his accusations with a bogus appointment as her deputy. Thus caught off guard, Melvin is snatched by the mayor's goons who "Get the Geek," tossing him into the contaminated harbor. They leave him for dead, but Melvin emerges, transformed by the stew of chemicals bubbling in the waters of Tromaville, into the title character. He intervenes when those same goons are about to molest Sarah, earning her adorationand lust (there's the cue for "Thank God She's Blind"). He tries to tell her he is toxic but she interrupts, thinking that is a French name, making his appeal all the greater. She calls him Toxie for short, waxing romantically about "My Big French Boyfriend." For Melvin's long-suffering mother, his transformation into a monster is par for the course, another disappointment ("Big Green Freak").
Between the mayor's plot to stop this new green hero from foiling her plot, Melvin's mother's attempts to find a cure for his condition, Melvin/Toxie's fear that he will lose Sarah's love all over again if she feels his monstrous face, and Sarah's attempts to lure him into a more physical relationship, things keep hopping, leading up to a dazzling confrontation between the mayor and the motherdazzling because the same actor (Kim Kivens) plays both roles. They hold back nothing in their vitriol for one another: "Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore." I won't reveal how it all ends, but I can tell you I left the theater feeling greatnot just about the outcome of the show, but about the abundance of joyful energy, talent and affirmation that we can have fun at the theater.
Tristen Sima is pitch perfect as Melvin/Toxie. He is seriously dweeby before his transformation, pining for the undeserving Sarah, and becomes a brave, though humble, people's hero, aided by chest padding to create the requisite physique. His singing is a bit strained, but one would not expect either Melvin or Toxie to be much in the way of a crooner. As Sarah, Rachel Schmidt draws out the ironic humor in her shallow perspective on life, most fully displayed when she has finished her novel and begs her idol to "Choose Me, Oprah!" Both Sima and Schmidt are new faces on the Twin Cities theater scene, and I anticipate we'll be seeing more of them.
Back to that mother/mayor face off. Kim Kivens has been marvelous in many comic rolesher Muriel in Minneapolis Musical Theater's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and her turn as a mother Sneetch at Children's Theatre Company are two prime examplesbut here she is simply incredible. Her shtick as Melvin's mother and her tough-as-nails mayor are each greatly crafted comic gems. When she combines the two, with the help of Christian LaBissoniere and Jordan Mitchell in wigs and look-alike outfitsand quick off stage costume changes (props to the backstage crew)she raises the bar for musical comedy performance. She is also swell trying to convince Sarah not to give up on Melvin/Toxie, because, after all, "All Men are Freaks."
The aforementioned Christian LaBissoniere and Jordan Mitchell are listed in the program as "White Dude" and "Black Dude" respectively, which means they play all the other partsthe mayor's thugs, a doctor, and a scientist treating Melvin's condition, Sarah's bubble-headed be-wigged best friends who serve as her back-up singers, a folk singer (LaBissoniere warbling "The Legend of the Toxic Avenger"), and various citizens of Tromaville. Both gents do a grand job of switching gears and costumes, throwing themselves into each part with top-notch song and dance moves.
And, speaking of dance moves, choreographer Emily Madigan has been remarkably inventive with a cast of only five, creating lively sequences that add yet one more dimension to the fun.
Back in 1984 when The Toxic Avenger came out as a movie, it was greeted with mixed to favorable reviews. Since then, it has acquired some cult caché, and in a re-evaluation, received top scores on Rotten Tomatoes. On top of that, this year it will be inducted into the Library of Congress. The musical need not wait 30 years to be appreciated. It's got all the ingredients for a great time at the theater, with fun and entertainment flowing freely from the tap. Minneapolis Musical Theatre has a great track record for polishing quirky material into shining gems. With The Toxic Avenger, they've done it again.
The Toxic Avenger, a Minneapolis Musical Theatre production, plays through February 13, 2018, at The Phoenix Theatre, 2605 Hennepin Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $30.00 - $18.00. For tickets call (612) 440-6681 or go to www.aboutmmt.org.
Music and Lyrics: David Bryan; Book and Lyrics: Joe DiPietro, based on Lloyd Kaufman's film The Toxic Avenger; Director: Ryan McGuire Grimes; Choreographer: Emily Madigan; Music Director: Anna Murphy; Scenic Design: Madeline Achen; Costume Design: Clara Cavins Wolford; Audio Design: Abe Gabor; Lighting Design: Ben Harvey; Prop Design: Connor McEvoy; Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler; Assistant Stage Manager: Sarah Maxwell
Cast: Kim Kivens (Ma/Mayor), Christian LaBissoniere (White Dude), Jordan Mitchell (Black Dude), Rachel Schmidt (Sarah), Tristen Sima (Melvin/Toxie).