In a world in which super hero comic books are providing fodder for entire movie franchises, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable that a movie about a super hero would provide an inspiration for a stage musical. In this case, the movie is The Toxic Avenger, a B-movie that rose to success on the back of midnight showings in Greenwich Village. At its heart, the whole concept owes more to the Rocky Horror Picture Show than it does to X-men though, as the entire charm of this piece is based upon being campy and over the top – the complete opposite of pretty much every musical on stage right now, which, if they’re not trying to deliver a message, are at least attempting to be sincere.
Southwark Playhouse’s performance of The Toxic Avenger is very sincerely silly, from the plot (nerd dumped in toxic waste becomes an extremely unsexy super hero, a la The Hulk) to the costumes (the quick changes of the duo who played about ten different characters each were really remarkable) to the songs (“All Men Are Freaks” was a personal favorite). Although I initially worried the tiny cast (five!) had bitten off more than they could chew – I mean, think of the room-filling numbers of Titanic – the show played to the comedy elements of double casting quite deliberately, including the pure genius number “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” in which Lizzii Hills, who plays both the evil mayor of Tromaville and the Toxic Avenger’s mom, does a duet as both of them, AT THE SAME TIME – changing clothes behind a curtain and finally just switching which side of herself she was showing to the audience. It was a completely unique moment the likes of which I’d only ever seen in cabaret and I loved it!
Buuuut … I found I was having some problems with the show due to my own inability to just relax and go with it. I really had a problem with all of the jokes they were making at the expense of the Toxic Avenger’s blind girlfriend (Hannah Grover) … I mean, I know that only a blind person could love a guy with his brain exposed and an eyeball hanging down his face, but … having her crawl around on stage when she lost her cane actually made me cringe. I just couldn’t laugh. And sure, her sex drive was part of the comedy, but … it just felt kind of like a message in a bottle from the old days when it wasn’t okay for women to be sexually enthusiastic. Hell, it’s a message from today as well, and it’s not one I like. On the other hand, the sexual voraciousness of the mayor seemed pretty well integrated into her personality. But then … the two men who were playing the hairdressers … it just seemed … well, like such negative stereotyping. Maybe I’ve been living in London for too long, that I don’t enjoy making fun of people as much as I might have back in my twenties. I’ve just … I don’t know, grown up … grown up a bit too much to enjoy this play.
The songs, though, are really very good – and bad songwriting is the number one sin for a musical in my book (hah hah, get it) – and it’s overall high energy and fun, and sure to appeal to lots of people … but it just wasn’t for me, even though they did really hit all of those B-movie notes just right on, as well as all of the notes in the song. I expect it will be successful and I hope they have sell out houses, because fun musicals like this are very uncommon and this one is put together just right – it just isn’t to my tastes.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on April 25th, 2016. It continues through May 21.)