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Rock of Ages

The Toxic Avenger

This rollickingly funny adaptation of the 1984 horror movie about a nerd who becomes a monster is expertly acted and directed.

By New York City
Nancy Opel and Nick Cordero
in The Toxic Avenger
(© Carol Rosegg)
Nancy Opel and Nick Cordero
in The Toxic Avenger
(© Carol Rosegg)
Boy meets blind girl, turns toxic after exposure to hazardous waste, saves the environment, and gets the girl. That's the basic scenario of the rollickingly funny new musical The Toxic Avenger now at New World Stages, in which 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.

The tone is set from the opening moments of John Rando's expertly directed production, when a guy appears at the top of a huge pyramid of grimy oil drums (the main element of the consistently and surprisingly clever scenic design by Beowulf Boritt), and before he can sing his first notes, he starts choking on the fumes around him. 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.

Cordero induces grins even before Melvin's transformation, playing an oversized nerd with sweet aplomb. However, once Melvin becomes the Toxic Avenger -- after being dumped in a vat of waste by the town's idiotic bullies -- Cordero beautifully balances the grotesque creature's heart-of-gold and general horndogedness with the monster's mean vengeful streak. It's little wonder that Sarah (played with droll over-the-top sexuality by Sara Chase), a beautiful and blind librarian on whom Melvin dotes, thinks she's found the answer to all of her intense erotic fantasies in the ill-smelling creature who rescues her from a couple of punk rapists.

Still, many of the evening's most hilarious moments stem from Nancy Opel's deliciously manic portrayals of two characters. Not only does she play Babs Belgoody, the on-the-take mayor of Tromaville who's responsible for turning the town into a toxic dump, she also plays Ma Ferd, Melvin's perpetually disappointed mother. Opel's performance might seem to hit its pinnacle as she shakes her junk in a red Nancy Reagan-like suit (designer David C. Woolard provides the often smile-inducing costumes) while the Mayor tries to convince Melvin not to alert the media about her activities, but this moment is only a tip of the iceberg. Later in the show, theatergoers roar as Opel plays the mayor and ma simultaneously as they duke it out in a local beauty parlor.

While Opel's ability to play two characters in one scene impresses, Demond Green and Matthtew Saldivar's work as the utilitarian characters of "Black Dude" and "White Dude" truly astounds. During the course of the show, these versatile actors each play about a dozen roles (of both genders), often swapping costumes, body language, and accents in the blink of an eye and with pitch-perfect specificity.

Ultimately, this unlikely sci-fi action romance proves something that Sarah says early on: "Violence is always wrong, even though it's often entertaining."


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