Love, laughter, lyrics get ‘Toxic’ at Uptown
There’s a sick, delicious history of turning unlikely stories into stage musicals. From The Rocky Horror Show to Little Shop of Horrors (riffing on sci-fi) to Avenue Q (the profanitizing of children’s television), the tradition of twisting camp sources into even campier songfests is an honored if not especially respected one, as you could sort of tell from the expressions on some audience members’ faces at opening night of The Toxic Avenger, now at the Kalita. Glance around at random moments, and befuddlement was almost as evident as goofy delight. It can be a tough sell, I guess, re-educating successive generations of theatergoers that yes, indeed, it is OK to laugh at the unthinkably bleak, or stupid, or outrageous. I, for one, want to say: Thank you, Uptown Players, for the venom.
And venom aplenty is there in The Toxic Avenger, a notoriously wonderful-but-never-produced musical from the Tony Award-winning team of Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (Memphis). Everything about the town of Tromaville, N.J., is poisonous: Its mayor (Sara Shelby-Martin) a corrupt moustache-twirling villain who allows a mountain of oozing oilcans of glowing nuclear waste to pollute her town. Roving gangs (Walter Lee and Clint Gilbert, who gamely and hilariously tackle every townsperson save four — their characters are identified in the playbill only as Black Dude and White Dude) terrorize the residents.
A hot nerd named Melvin Ferd the Third (John Campione, in full-on Seymour Krelborn mode) tries gamely to save the town, only to be dunked in a vat of chemicals … but may death never stop him. In classic comic book fashion, Melvin is both deformed and enhanced, miraculously emerging as a pustule-covered hero with blasted quads, Schwarzenegger-sized bulletproof pecs and superhuman strength. Three cheers for sweet revenge! But he’s still too shy to commit to the town’s blind librarian Sara (Katie Porterfield) — the only person other than his mother (also Shelby-Martin) who could love a mug like his … because she can’t see it.
Yep. You’re expected to laugh at blind-girl jokes. It’s that kind of show.
The Toxic Avenger is gloriously offensive in the way only smart comedy can be. It’s a black parade of sight gags (and in Sara’s case, lack-of-sight-gags — ba-DOOM!) and silly songs that echo a variety of genres, from folk ballad (“The Legend of the Toxic Avenger”) to tango to faux-Bon-Jovi rock anthems. (Only slight faux, though — composer David Bryan actually is the keyboardist for Bon Jovi.) It most closely calls to mind Little Shop and Urinetown, with its loveable losers and misguided morality, but there are homages and pop-culture references all around (one of the best: rhyming “Winnie-the-Pooh” with “Maya Angelou”), in its joyous, foot-tapping score.
But the secret sauce of Toxic is how director Jeremy Dumont cast the show. A mere five actors (plus five musicians) spread the gooey love for two raucous hours of energetic acting and music-making. Shelby-Martin’s act-ending duet with herself triggered a riotous and deserved ovation; Porterfield unblinkingly (zing!) plays the klutzy leading lady with panache and Campione — operating under more Latex than a dominatrix in Amsterdam — conveys as much tenderness as he does power. Yet Lee and Gilbert do most of the heavy lifting, with quick changes of costume and character that are dizzying. There are no conventional weapons at work here — everyone is a tactical missile, a drone that hits its targets. The Toxic Avenger explodes in surprises.
Marianne (Allison Pistorius), a theoretical early-universe cosmologist, awkwardly hits on Roland (Alex Organ), a beekeeper, at a barbecue with some tired line about immortality.
“Not interested,” he says. A beat later, she tries again… in exactly the same way. “I’m married.” Another beat. Another opening line. Third time’s the charm, right?
“I’m with someone.”
Eventually, though, a Marianne settles on a Roland who falls for her, and they cheat, reconcile, suffer estrangement and illness… ultimately, it all works out. Though ultimately, it never works out. We’re either honeybees whose lifecycles span mere weeks or quantum pawns living out thousands of lifetimes.
Ah, the intellectual conundrum of quantum mechanics and the multiverse when it comes to romantic entanglements. If every choice leads to an infinite number of outcomes, there is no happy ending. Or is every one of them happy?
Such is the heart of Constellations, settling in for six more weeks at the Dallas Theater Center’s intimate studio space. If the premise doesn’t sound entirely original, well it’s not: See the recent musical If/Then, the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors. Is it good? Well, sure. It was good the other times, too. It just doesn’t feel necessary, or very creative. Constellations feels more like a theatrical etude than a play, an exercise where the playwright (in this case, Nick Payne) can fuss over structure instead of character: Can’t decide if he should cheat first or she should? Well, why not have both?
When you get infinite bites at the apple, you never have to make meaningful choices. But it also leaves the audience oddly empty. Why trust these outcomes? It just reinforces the impossibility of really knowing someone.
Best, then, merely to admire the performances of Pistorius and Organ, who shift on a dime through myriad minor permutations and engage us, whatever universe it’s in. They are the stars of this Constellation.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 2, 2016.