Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Toxic Avenger


Book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro. Music by David Bryan. Directed by John Rando. New World Stages. (CLOSED)

Most critics surrender to the nonstop laughs provided by this unlikely musicalization of Troma's gory 1984 schlockfest, even as they nod to the show's antecedents (Little Shop, Evil Dead). While the book and score get mixed notices, the cast gets mostly praise. Nearly all the reviewers credit Urinetown director John Rando and the show's designers for their ingenuity, and all the critics--even the unpersuaded--hail the musical-theater force of nature that is Nancy Opel.

Backstage A
(Jason Fitzgerald) Delivers a riotously good time and proves again that talent and trash are not incompatible...Bryan shows a sophisticated ear for the theatre without losing his rock edge. One minute there's a loud rock ballad, the next there's a virtuoso set piece for Nancy Opel -- in a star turn playing three roles -- in which two of her characters have an onstage fight.

Bloomberg News A-
(Jeremy Gerard) ) Loud, gross and lovable...The high-energy songs are by David Bryan, keyboardist and co-founder of New Jersey rockers Bon Jovi...The curse of most shows like this is a winking self-awareness, as if to say “we’re all in on the joke.” Not so here; the story is played for laughs, but it’s played straight. For which, credit an astounding cast under the direction of Tony-winning John Rando (“Urinetown”)...First among equals is Opel, a treasure well-known to fans of musical comedy...Also cheerfully ingenious are: Beowulf Boritt’s set, a mountain of oil drums that transforms into Sarah’s home and various other locations; Kenneth Posner’s lighting; and David C. Woolard’s astonishing range of costumes...This may be the only musical in which the torchy phrase “you tore my heart out” should come with a warning to the squeamish.

Theatermania A-
(Andy Propst) Rollickingly funny...Bookwriter Joe DiPietro and composer David Bryan take the senseless violence and over-the-top gore of the 1984 movie of the same name and morphs them into campy fun...While there are times when the book could benefit from some judicious pruning, the laughs come fast and furious throughout the 100-minute enterprise. And while the songs are predominantly in the hard rock mode, they also include a grand Bruce Springsteen/John Cougar Mellencamp-like folk song and a couple of delightful send-ups of girl group power ballads...Ultimately, this unlikely sci-fi action romance proves something that Sarah says early on: "Violence is always wrong, even though it's often entertaining."

Time Out NY B+
(Rob Weinert-Kendt) Precisely the breed of pop-culture mutant Off Broadway was made for: a winking rock & roll romp inspired by sci-fi schlock, crammed with a smorgasbord of showpieces for outsize comic talents to chew on. Audience appetites for such frothy runoff may vary according to age and degree of intoxication, but for most of its running time The Toxic Avenger is hard to resist on its own infectious terms. It's Shrek for stoners.

Village Voice B+
(Eric Grode) About three times better than you'd expect—which, depending on your expectation level, puts it somewhere between painless and actually kind of...good. Composer David Bryan and book writer/lyricist Joe DiPietro have salvaged an agreeably mindless piece of rock bombast out of a zero-budget 1985 horror flick...Bryan's knowing pastiche score outpaces DiPietro's tired lyrics, and director John Rando (Urinetown) once again relies heavily both on handicap jokes (many of them quite funny) and on scenery gnawing by the priceless Nancy Opel.

Nytheatre.com B+
(David Gordon) No matter how many times and ways you see a joke coming down the pike, if it's done right, it's absolutely hilarious...Owes a lot to cult-film-cum-musical predecessors Reefer Madness and Evil Dead: the Musical...DiPietro's laugh-a-second script is filled with off-color humor, mostly making fun of the blind. There are also sight-gags a-plenty in Beowulf Boritt's extremely versatile set...For the record, with complete knowledge that we'll be going to hell in a hand basket, my companion and I thought they were utterly hilarious, in tune with the campy nature of the show...Bryan's score is really the weakest link; it's serviceable, at best (though his orchestrations, written with Christopher Janke, are spot-on)...If it wasn't directed by a camp master such as Rando, all might be lost.

Variety B+
(Sam Thielman) Has a fine sense of place, several very funny setpieces and thesps like Sara Chase, Demond Green and Nancy Opel to recommend it. It also has pacing problems and a few gags that run too long, but it manages to thoroughly entertain even when it slacks off. If you're some sort of prude who doesn't find brutal dismemberment funny, you may have a harder time at this show than most...One of the show's greatest assets is bit player Green, whose antics are exactly audience-friendly enough without seeming hammy...In contrast to the 1984 Troma film, producers Jean Cheever and Tom Polum appear to have spent quite a bit on this show, and Beowulf Boritt's set -- chiefly stacks of occasionally glowing oil drums -- looks terrific...Helmer John Rando ("Urinetown") deserves a lot of credit for the gags that go right.

New York Post B+
(Frank Scheck) Hilarious...This theatrical campfest succeeds where Evil Dead: The Musical and others have failed...The show gets big laughs from its opening moments, when the performers are coughing so hard they can barely get out the first song. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the loud pop/rock score by Bon Jovi founding member/keyboardist David Bryan is strictly generic. Happily, the book and lyrics by Bryan and Joe DiPietro ("I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change") are far funnier than they've any right to be. Under the terrific direction of John ("Urinetown") Rando, the hardworking five-person cast is hysterically funny...Admittedly, the vulgar humor wears thin after a while, and the show, like the film, may be best appreciated while under the influence.

NY Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) If you see just one show about a slimy green freak who plays tug of war with people's innards, make it "The Toxic Avenger"...Hits a wall two-thirds of the way in, but "Urinetown" Tony winner John Rando's sly direction and his five-actor cast consistently impress.

Associated Press B
(Michael Kuchwara) Your enjoyment of the show will depend on a willingness to surrender to its particular brand of juvenile, often gross-out, humor. The show is funny in a kind of cheesy, self-deprecating way, filled with a campy excess that requires the actors to deliver the broadest of performances. But when you have a gifted comedian such as Nancy Opel in the cast, you know the mugging will be elevated to high art...Director John Rando allows the proceedings to drag on a bit too long, and one or two numbers could be cut, especially a salute to Oprah's book club. It seems our blind librarian also writes bodice-rippers...Cartoonish can be entertaining for a while, and The Toxic Avenger has its share of laughs. Just remember, those laughs aim very low.

New Yorker B
(John Lahr) The giddy, furtive, theatrical equivalent of sniffing glue...Let the record show that DiPietro and Bryan manage to rhyme "macho" with "gazpacho." The fun they had writing the score certainly communicates itself...Under Rando's direction, The Toxic Avenger is a sort of one-stop shop for every piece of vaudeville shtick...In fact, the show is really a kind of St. Vitus' dance, a manifestation of our culture's death-haunted hysteria. It registers the fury of helplessness and offers in response only the impotence of invective.

CurtainUp B
(Amy Krivohlavek) Ultimately feels a bit recycled, but fortunately, it's been created from some quality pre-used materials. What makes this monster musical memorable certainly isn't its predictable story—instead, a trio of top-notch supporting performances catapult this Toxic Avenger from derivative to dynamic...The fantastic band is placed atop a mound of the toxic-waste barrels that smother the landscape, and they look as if they are poised to rock out. However, composer David Bryan (best known as the keyboardist of Bon Jovi) keeps the music on the softer side. He certainly dips into an edgier sound, but most often he pulls out a softer-core "musical-theater rock" quality that quickly evaporates...It's Opel who most thoroughly sends up this send-up show. With her precise comic timing, piercingly high vocals, and voracious stage presence, she sends out bolts of electricity every time she strides across the stage.

Lighting & Sound America C+
(David Barbour) The bad news is, The Toxic Avenger is a pretty standard example of the genre -- it's generally crude, sometimes funny, and features a thoroughly forgettable score. The good news is, it's directed with a light, clever hand by John Rando and performed by an unusually nimble cast of clowns -- and, at 90 minutes, it's blessedly short...If we must have this kind of show, I guess it'll do.

The New York Times C-
(Charles Isherwood) Dopey, intermittently funny...The real problem with “Toxic Avenger” is less the paucity of plot than the monotony of the elbow-in-ribs handling. Mr. Bryan’s music is competent but hardly complicated pop-rock that provides a plain base for his and Mr. DiPietro’s relatively crude lyrics...“Little Shop of Horrors,” perhaps the progenitor of the genre, had wit, charm and a melodic, lovable retro score. Only a few songs in “Toxic Avenger” rise above the generic in either music or lyrics...Mr. DiPietro’s book is on the same head-banging level. I lost count of the jokes playing on Sarah’s blindness somewhere in the double digits...Most of the show’s appeal derives from the exuberantly silly performances that the director, John Rando, elicits from his cast of five. Even rank idiocy can tickle when the actors doing the tickling have real talent...Given the cheapo provenance of the material, this winking approach to the show’s minimal cast is funny enough. But it might be funnier if full-priced tickets to “Toxic Avenger” did not run to $85.

Talkin' Broadway D+
(Matthew Murray) Anything that allows so many opportunities to a performer of Opel’s blindingly polished caliber can’t be all bad - no matter how hard it tries...Opel is pure, unapologetic musical comedy. With a ceiling-scraping belt, more facial expressions than Fanny Brice and all them Barrymores put together...she’s a seismic jolt of personality in a show that needs every drop it can get...Everything that happens, including Matthew Salvidar and Demond Green playing other ensemble character, is merely biding time until the arbitrary (and predictable) finish. Unfortunately, the songs are not distinctive enough to make the waiting particularly pleasurable. Rock without reason, they meander about and mock various styles...Rando has given this show the same kind of improbably focused and anything-for-a-laugh production he brought to Urinetown, at once engrossing and ugly, understaffed and overblown.

Backstage A 13; Bloomberg News A- 12; Theatermania A- 12; TONY B+ 11; VV B+ 11; Nytheatre.com B+ 11; Variety B+ 11; New York Post B+ 11; NY Daily News B+ 11; AP B 10; NYer B 10; CurtainUp B 10; LS&A C+ 8; The New York Times C- 6; Talkin' Broadway D+ 5; TOTAL: 152/15=10.13 (B)

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