Photo credit: Claire Bilyard
I knew nothing about cult classic The Toxic Avenger before taking my seat in the theatre, but I have been a big fan of the Southwark Playhouse for quite a while now as they have the tendency to take Broadway or Off-Broadway hits and move them across the pond for a very successful, often smaller-scale version, of shows that are very popular within the musical theatre community. Recent favourites at the Southwark Playhouse have included Titanic, Grand Hotel and Carrie, and The Toxic Avenger is going straight onto that list as well.
The show starts off as your average superhero origins story. Melvin Ferd the Third is a nerdy guy with a mission: expose the corporation that is making a toxic dumping ground of his hometown in New Jersey and impress the girl he is not-so-secretly in love with. But of course this is easier said than done and when the corrupted mayor discovers Melvin's plans she ropes in the town bullies to teach him a lesson. The brainless duo take their threats a step too far, accidentally dropping Melvin in a vat of toxic waste, and a new superhero is born: The Toxic Avenger.
Melvin continues his mission to rid his town of the bad people in it, but now with a slight twist. Not only has he become super strong and nearly invincible, he also looks like a green monster with an eyeball dangling out of its socket. But hey, at least the girl he's trying to impress is blind so as long as they don't kiss his secret is safe...
Adapted for the stage and with music by Memphis co-creators Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, this musical has been compared to other cult classics such as Bat Boy and Urinetown and while I can certainly see some resemblance in underlying themes and, in the case of Bat Boy, the cheese factor, I found The Toxic Avenger far superior musically and vocally. Sure, the book was completely over-the-top and perhaps went a tad too far on occasion, but because it didn't take itself seriously and was filled with crazy slapstick moments, a plethora of musical theatre references and a repeated breaking of the fourth wall, the more extreme twists within the show became comedic rather than horrific.
The small cast of just five actors were incredible and I was in awe with the energy and talent they brought to this production. At the centre of the musical was Mark Anderson (Book of Mormon) and he was both endearing and menacing as Melvin and Toxie. He was supported well by Hannah Grover as love interest Sarah who, as the token blind character, crawled around on all fours more than once to stretch out a scene while other cast members managed the quickest costume changes known to man. The most impressive though were the three supporting cast members, who switched characters, outfits, wigs and accents more times than I could keep track of. It kept the show a constant surprise and it added to the slapstick humour woven throughout.
While the comedy was excellent within the musical, its real strength lay in the killer musical tracks woven throughout. There were definite hints of the co-creators' hit show Memphis in many of the songs, and as that is one of my absolute favourite musicals I was totally okay with that. And David Bryan is part of rock legends Bon Jovi for which he has co-written some of the music, and there certainly some moments I could hear their style shine through within the songs as well, which was a brilliant experience in the cosy auditorium at the Southwark Playhouse. Particular stand-outs were opener Who Will Save New Jersey, the wacky My Big French Boyfriend, and the folkish The Legend of the Toxic Avenger.
The Toxic Avenger is London-fringe-does-cult-classic at its very best. Cheesy and completely mental at times, this monstrous rock musical is a must-watch for anyone who loves to have a laugh while enjoying some wildly impressive performances and incredible musical theatre tunes. Don't miss out!
The Toxic Avenger is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 21 May 2016. Book your tickets here.