/ Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016
The Toxic Avenger, a musical new to me, was written by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics), the team behind the Broadway musical Memphis. The Toxic Avenger, now at the Venice Theatre, owes a great deal to Little Shop of Horrors, but since that is a favorite of mine, this is not a negative. It has a fun rock score, and after a run of new musicals with totally lackluster lyrics, I am very pleased to report that the lyrics are clever, with lots of good rhymes that mean something. The only thing it lacks is a big showstopping duet a la “Suddenly Seymour.” “Hot Toxic Love” is the big duet but it just doesn’t soar in the same way. Still, the book, music and lyrics are all of a piece, totally ridiculous and satirical all at the same time.
This show is being done in the Venice Theatre’s smaller Pinkerton Theatre, perfect for the size and offbeat tenor of the show, and a good part of the production’s success is its very strong cast. In the role of Melvin Ferd the Third/The Toxic Avenger, Kelly Leissler is totally nerdy until his transformation, after which he is only nerdy underneath, exactly as he should be. Caitlin Longstreet Ellis is his blind girlfriend Sarah, and she is quite convincing. Several times she looked out into the audience and I could actually believe she wasn’t seeing anything, an exceptional performance. Nancy Denton as Mayor Babs Belgoody and Ma Ferd would have wipe the stage clean of everyone else, if everyone else weren’t so exceptional. She brings down the first act curtain with a duet between her two characters. The offstage costume changes took just a tiny bit too long, taking away a little of the potential hilarity, but when at the end she comes out costumed half as Mayor Babs and half as Ma, she is fantastic. David Walker as White Dude and Kristofer Geddie as Black Dude play so many characters that they deserve kudos for their versatility.
The musical values, cast and band are so high that I was disappointed when I listened to selections from the cast album, it seems so inferior, and that includes a comparison with the great Nancy Opel playing Mayor Babs and Ma. Several of these performers have built in chemistry, appearing together in almost yearly productions of The Rocky Horror Show.
Everything about the production is well nigh perfect, Direction by Allan Kollar and choreography by Geena Ravella set exactly the right tone for this intentionally over the top musical. Music director Michelle Kasanofsky leads a lively four-piece band that as mentioned before puts the aforementioned Off-Broadway cast album to shame. Brian Freeman’s scenic designs are imaginative and capture the zaniness of it all, ditto the marvelous costumes by Jonathan Hall. Lighting design by John Michael Andzulis is amazingly varied.
The Toxic Avenger is not going to be to everyone’s taste—it probably will appeal more to a younger crowd—but I recommend this production to everyone. The only disappointment I felt was that there were so many empty seats on the first Sunday. Hopefully, great word of mouth will lead to SRO for the rest of the run.
Venice Theater presents The Toxic Avenger through October 23, 2016. 140 West Tampa Ave., Venice, FL. Box Office (941) 488-1115 or www.venicestage.com.