Based on Lloyd Kauffman’s 1984 cult horror comedy film of the same name, the musical version of The Toxic Avenger opened in Brunswick, New Jersey, in 2008, followed a year later by an Off-Broadway production, which won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best New Off-Broadway Musical. The show has been mounted across the United States, in addition to successful runs in Toronto, London, and Melbourne. The rock score was composed by the Memphis team: Bon Jovi member David Bryan (music & book) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics & book).
Chasta Hamilton Calhoun, who directs the current North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre presentation of The Toxic Avenger: The Musical, nobly stepped in to replace the previously announced director. It can be a challenge to direct a piece that you didn’t pick and isn’t necessarily in your wheelhouse. Her staging is simple, clear, and easy to follow. The visual palette of the show is fully integrated, and the cast are mostly right for their parts.
Pacing is this production’s greatest weakness. Several gaps in action and awkward silent moments leave the audience wondering if we’ve missed something or if the show dropped the ball. An obvious attempt is made at surreal prop usage, but the concept isn’t fully developed.
Sarah Tudor’s costuming is appropriate to character, but does not always match the heightened reality that the set (and the script) are going for. An impressive number of costume changes were accomplished mostly smoothly, but were occasionally delayed — or actors emerged without being fully transformed. A certain amount of campiness can be expected when it comes to a comic book-style show, but there were some awkward wigs and ill-fitted pieces (i.e., when the male ensemble duo is in drag).
Todd Houseknecht’s set is well-conceived, with toxic sludge painted onto the stage floor and a Batman-esque purple-green dilapidated city of Tromaville. The lower portion of the set feels incomplete, but the toxic waste barrel is quite effective. Special costuming and props by Wil Deedler further amplify the cartoonishness.
Sanderson High School’s Jarod Betts serves as lighting designer. His effective use of color — notably an intense green — does much to launch the show into comic-book land. However, a spotlight would have been helpful, because actors were not always sufficiently lit and became washed out by the colors.
Still, Betts makes effective use of NRACT’s limited grid even when the flashes and bangs don’t always land. One of the set’s platforms was so high that Betts could not light it at all — a challenge within NRACT’s space. It’s hard to know if director Chasta Hamilton Calhoun didn’t notice this problem or didn’t wish to restage those crosses.
Music director Jo Li has her singers firmly cued up with the tracks. This score, like many others that provide tracks, must be carefully timed alongside dialogue. The cast never flinches, and never misses a beat. The harmonies are pretty tight; but sometimes the supporting vocalists aren’t quite loud enough, especially when the guys are forced into a baffling falsetto.
Jason Bailey brings an over-the-top brand of fight choreography that is missing only the “zow!” and “kablam!” graphics; and first-time stage manager Craig Johnson keeps the show running smoothly, despite the script’s frequent changes of setting. The performance had virtually no sound problems, which is an extremely impressive feat.
Aaron C. Alderman comes crashing onto the NRACT stage as Melvin Ferd III and, later, the Toxic Avenger himself. His voice is a source of cosmic power ,and his portrayal is top-notch. This was a very strong performance.
Lauren Paige Rainey is the best thing about this production. Her portrayal of Sarah — blind librarian and love interest of the Toxic Avenger — indicates that she may be the sole cast member who truly understands what kind of show she’s in. She swoops in as though from the pages of a comic book; cheesy grin, wide doey eyes, and exaggerated movements make her instantly watchable. Her voice is strong, with a solid belt; she is perfectly cast.
Heather Shinpaugh struts and shimmies as a trio of distinctly developed characters: Mayor Babs Belgoody, Ma Fern, and the Nun. She has a natural comedic talent, and is a skilled physical actor. Her beautiful lyric soprano, however, is too delicate for the rock-and-roll score of this particular show.
One of our ensemble “clowns” is Jay Dolan, who a great rock voice; but his characters are underdeveloped, and he seems uncomfortable. The other, Orlando Parker, Jr., is better suited to the piece, opting for bigger-is-better and having characters with more distinction. His dance moves and voice are both equally strong. It is the fault of the score that these guys have to sing falsetto in multiple places, which limits dynamics when backing a soprano.
The book and lyrics of the show are delightful: extremely humorous and with a terrific wink to the cult film and comic-book genres. The score is fun and catchy.
NRACT’s production has several solid design elements, and some strong performances; but some lapses in pacing and a general unpolished feeling keep The Toxic Avenger at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre from reaching its full potential, though it is a great deal of fun to watch.
The show lands in the PG-13 zone for language and some gruesome imagery.
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre presents THE TOXIC AVENGER at 8 p.m. Oct. 21 and 22 and p.m. Oct. 23 at 7713-51 Lead Mine Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27615, in the Food Lion Shopping Center.
BOX OFFICE: 919-866-0228 or http://www.nract.org/tickets.
NRACT’S 2016-17 SEASON: http://www.nract.org/shows.
The Toxic Avenger (1984 film): http://www.toxicavenger.com/ (official website), http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/93738/Toxic-Avenger-The/ (Turner Classic Movies), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090190/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Toxic_Avenger_%28film%29 (Wikipedia).
The Toxic Avenger (2009 Off-Broadway musical): http://www.toxicavenger.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/4855 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Toxic_Avenger_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia).
David Bryan (music and lyrics): http://www.davidbryan.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/37135 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/david-bryan-484159 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bryan (Wikipedia).
Joe DiPietro (lyrics and book): http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/3137 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/joe-dipietro-383115 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_DiPietro (Wikipedia).
Chasta Hamilton Calhoun ( Raleigh, NC director): https://www.facebook.com/chastahamiltoncalhoun (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.