THE BASICS: THE TOXIC AVENGER, a musical by the winning creative team of Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, presented by Second Generation Theatre, directed by Doug Weyand, starring Steve Copps, Bethany Burrows, Jenn Stafford, Raphael A. Santos, and Dylan Zalikowski (and they ARE all of them stars) opened on October 25 and runs through November 10, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8, Saturdays at both 2 and 8, Sundays at 2 (no evening performance October 26), plus November 3 (Industry Night) at 7 at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main Street (508-7480) www.secondgenerationtheatre.com Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission (full-service bar) (stage smoke, gunshots, adult humor)
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: “Melvin Ferd The Third” the nerd who’s never kissed a girl and lives at home with his mother, has a major crush on “Sarah the Blind Librarian” but when his amateur eco-investigations get him thrown into a vat of disfiguring toxic sludge by the Mayor’s thugs, all hope for romance seems lost. You see, the chemicals have turned him into a monster, “Toxie” the “Toxic Avenger.” Still, he is determined to clean up corruption and the environment and stop global warming. His arch-nemesis is “Babs Belgoody,” the corrupt Mayor of his hometown of Tromaville, New Jersey and her goons. All parts (and there are many) are played by only five actors.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: It was a moment or 120 fabulous moments in quick succession as SGT began their second season in residence at the Shea’s Smith Theatre. Their regional premiere of THE TOXIC AVENGER, based on the 1984 cult movie of the same name, had the sold-out opening night crowd in hysterics. Seriously, if you loved HAIRSPRAY (stellar cast, dancing, costumes, music) or THE BOOK OF MORMON (totally irreverent and not always “PC” using very clever send-ups of popular musical styles) or KILLER RACK (another campy musical based on a B movie) then guaranteed you will love this musical. Now for the bad news. It runs only to November 10.
THE TOXIC AVENGER is a creation of Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics). They were the creative team for MEMPHIS, based on Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s, which toured nationally with a stop at Shea’s about seven years ago. So, this is neither their first rodeo nor their first musical about an unlikely hero battling the system. DiPietro is also the author of that staple of community and dinner theatre, I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE. David Bryan, just inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame last year, was the keyboard player for Bon Jovi. Both DiPietro and Bryan are proud sons of New Jersey, born, bred, and educated all the way to Rutgers University although Bryan dropped out… wait for it… to attend The Juilliard School of Music!
The music is a blend of genres, but the core, to my ears, was right out of the 1980s with a vibe that is sometimes soft rock in the style of Jackson Browne, sometimes Atlanta R&B/soul in the style of Peabo Bryson or, hell, the soundtrack to “Dirty Dancing.”
The production is one of those rarities, a true ensemble. The romantic leads are Steve Copps as Melvin Ferd III (“You Tore My Heart Out”), the nerd turned mutant eco-hero now known as Toxie and Bethany Burrows as the blind librarian Sarah with big dreams of writing an Oprah promoted novel (“Choose Me, Oprah!”). The comic characters are Jenn Stafford in the twin roles of (fictional) Tromaville New Jersey’s tough-as-nails Mayor, Babs Belgoody, but she’s also Melvin’s disappointed mother, Ma Ferd and, in the highlight number just before intermission (“Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore”), those two roles change in rapid succession. Very rapid succession. The house exploded. A standing ovation at the conclusion of shows these days is the norm. When’s the last time you saw a standing ovation at the end of a first act?
Raphael A. Santos and Dylan Zalikowski aced their multiple “utility” roles, with Santos listed as Black Dude and Zalikowski listed as White Dude. But they are so much (or so many) more. One might say that they frequently “stole the show” but that’s the nature of this entire musical. Whoever is on stage at any given moment “steals the show” – all five actors are individually and in ensemble so excellent. Among many highlights are those two, Santos and Zalikowski, as the glitter back-up girls (think “Supremes”) as Sarah sings (with a New Jersey accent) the vampy “My Big French Boyfriend.” It’s an incredibly strong cast.
The production is one of those rarities, a true ensemble.
In my recent review of the musical COME FROM AWAY I mentioned how, as the audience exited, I hadn’t sensed that shared level of audience pride and joy since HAMILTON. The audience for THE TOXIC AVENGER left the theater on the same level of high, although giddy would be a more apt descriptor.
So why is this musical rated the rare 5 out of 5 Buffalos? Because it is superb in every single aspect. The casting was right, the acting is uniformly excellent, the singing (Steve Copp’s best ever) by everyone is divine, always on pitch, delivering the hilarious lyrics and the catchy tunes. The direction is superb, with tons of shtick, expressions, looks, and gestures. The director, Doug Weyand, is also the choreographer and the dance routines are all over the top (and also all over the stage). And helping to nail that 5/5 rating, once again, were Santos and Zalikowski, whose physical comedy and dance skills (especially in drag) added that element that takes “customer satisfaction” to “customer delight.”
The band delivered on every aspect and in every musical genre, led by Allan Paglia (keyboard), Brian McMahon (percussion), Melissa Bender (bass), Bobby MacDonell (reeds), and Sean Spicer (really!) on guitar.
The toxic set, lighting, SFX, and sound by Chris Cavanagh were impressive, all the more so given the confines of the smaller Smith Theatre, as were the costumes, props and wigs by Lindsay Salamone, Roy Walker, and Mary McMahon, respectively with the super-campy but really impressive “Toxie” mask and bodysuit created by Lindsay Salamone and Jacob Albarella.
The stage manager was Emma English, assisted by Marty Gartz and Gemini Zajac and the Assistant TD was Kevin Fahey. I hope that I haven’t left anyone out because in a musical with as many costume changes, lighting, sound, mic and entrance cues as this one had, I was beyond impressed that opening night was so smooth. Like the proverbial duck, I’m sure that everyone was paddling like hell backstage, but all we saw on the surface was smooth perfection.
UP NEXT: There are several special nights during this run – Halloween, Young Professionals, and (Theater) Industry – so you might want to like the “Second Generation Theatre” Facebook page for updates. The next full play is Edward Albee’s THREE TALL WOMEN starring Barbara Link Larou, Lisa Ludwig, and Anna Krempholtz which will be at Shea’s Smith March 20 to April 5, 2020.
And there are two free play readings (which to date have been excellent, I can assure you): A KID LIKE JAKE directed by Sabrina Kahwaty (about parents with a “special” child in pre-K). That’s on Monday, December 9 at 7 p.m. at the Kenmore Presbyterian Church. Also at the church is THE BOWLING PLAY, directed by Amy Jakiel, about looking for love in a bowling alley, and that’s on Monday, January 27, 2020 also at 7 p.m. Both are free, but often a donation of canned goods to the food pantry or other cause is recommended, so check Facebook before you go.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!