Rorschach Theatre has a reputation for charmingly offbeat productions, and has always been willing to go a little darker and a little weirder when selecting shows. It seems only fitting that, when picking Rorschach’s first musical, director Tracy Lynn Olivera would turn to an adaptation of The Toxic Avenger, a 1984 B-movie about a geek who turns to a life of fighting crime and cleaning up grime after being horribly burned in toxic slime. Devotees of either Rorschach’s quirky aesthetic or of ’80s cheese will find a lot to enjoy about The Toxic Avenger: The Musical, but the production stumbles with an outdated book and a host of technical issues. Such missteps can be treacherous when open barrels of toxic waste are lying around.
When the musical debuted more than a decade ago, book writer Joe DiPietro boiled down the Toxic franchise to its most basic elements. Lonely nerd Melvin Ferd the Third (Ricky Drummond) is pushed into a vat of toxic sludge and gains mutant powers, with a side of horrible disfigurement. He emerges as Toxie, a hero set on foiling the looting and polluting mayor of his New Jersey town (Tess Higgins), and winning the heart of a blind librarian (Emily Levey). The story isn’t so much a plot as it is a setting for a few hours of pretty funny songs from DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, and lots of jokes, mostly about New Jersey.
A bare-bones plot is no problem—the source material hasn’t achieved a cult classic status by emulating Shakespeare—and Rorschach’s staging wrings out a few solid belly laughs, especially in its use of physical comedy. But in his script, DiPietro made the shortsighted decision to update Toxie’s world from the ’80s to 2008. Many of the “modern” jokes, like references to the omnipresence of Starbucks, feel dated. Worse, some jokes are now flatly in poor taste—not in the fun, shockingly irreverent way of the original movie, but just blandly and blindly offensive, as in the case of multiple jokes whose sole punchlines are that a male actor is wearing a dress.
On that note, Toxic does indeed call upon its five actors to make dozens of quick costume changes. This impressive trick reaches its zenith in a hilarious scene where two of the best, hammiest characters in the play—Toxie’s mom and the evil mayor—must engage in an epic onstage battle. The twist: Both characters are played by Higgins, who may not play the musical’s titular hero but who surely has superhuman strength, given how much of the play she carries on her back.
Unfortunately, even with a dedicated and tireless cast, the production, at least on press night, was plagued by technical issues, from malfunctioning mics to missed audio cues to problems with the multitudinous quick changes. While a few of these mishaps, like a character flubbing the first line of the play, are scripted, most aren’t. The core audience likely won’t care to know the difference. Those who overlook or even savor such flubs—and certainly a lot of them are among the original Toxic Avenger’s fanbase—will find these missteps to be the cherry on top of an enjoyably wacky show. The rest may have a good time as well, but should carefully consider a warning (given in jest) in the musical’s prologue: “The next few hours are a part of your life you’re never getting back.”
To March 1 at 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. $10–$40. rorschachtheatre.com.
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