Updated: Apr 26, 2022
‘The Toxic Avenger’ will do his irreverent thing at Wayward Artist
By Eric Marchese
How many musicals can you think of that are off-the-charts funny, have a genuinely great rock and roll score, and yet also carry a message about a social issue that gains increasing urgency with each passing year?
You’re probably hard pressed to answer that – unless you’ve seen “The Toxic Avenger,” a stage musicalization of the low-budget big-screen ’80s horror comedy.
Both the 2008 rock musical and the 1984 film it’s based on have cult followings. That’s something for which The Wayward Artist can be thankful, because it almost guarantees an audience – and one that’s already familiar with the story and characters.
Craig Tyrl, Wayward’s co-founder and the show’s director, said Wayward’s fifth season opener is “in some ways our biggest production yet.”
“We’re trying to create a whole immersive experience, from lobby and foyer to inside the theater. The green ‘Toxic’ neon signs are meant to really immerse our patrons into the world of Tromaville (the story’s fictional New Jersey town).”
What’s more, Tyrl said having such an intimate venue means “we’re constantly breaking the fourth wall, so the audience is fully engaged throughout.”
Theme-wise, “The Toxic Avenger” takes a comedic view of, among other things, superhero stories (movies and comic books), politics, pollution, and the seemingly running joke in American society that New Jersey is somehow inferior to anywhere else.
Tyrl cites three things that drew him to the show: the type of humor, the score, and the story’s message about the calamities of global warming. In the production’s press release, Tyrl and Wayward bill the show as a “love story with an environmental twist.”
Tyrl observes that the show “lives in that world of ‘Book of Mormon,’ ‘Avenue Q,’ and our production of ‘Twelfth Night – A Galactic Farce.’ At the same time, it has tremendous heart. The joy in the show is wonderful.”
The show’s humor is, according to Tyrl, “bawdy, irreverent, farcical, and satirical all at the same time. It really is my favorite kind of genre to direct – definitely rated R, but also laugh-out-loud hysterical.”
As to that last point, Tyrl said “Wayward doesn’t shy away from the edgy. The show is rife with adult humor, adult language and innuendo.”
The musical’s book is by playwright-lyricist Joe DiPietro (“All Shook Up”) and its music composed by David Bryan, co-founder of the rock band Bon Jovi. The duo wrote the show’s lyrics (and later reteamed to create the 2010 musical “Memphis”).
The storyline: Melvin Ferd the Third, a mild-mannered aspiring earth scientist, wants to clean up Tromaville, New Jersey, which has become a toxic waste dumping ground through the evil deeds of its corrupt mayor, Babs Belgoody. Dunked into a vat of radioactive toxic sludge by her henchmen, Melvin is transformed into a superhero, The Toxic Avenger.
Affectionately known as Toxie, he battles to save the Garden State from evil polluters, put an end to global warming, and win the heart of Sarah, Tromaville’s beautiful, blind librarian.
The show’s outrageously irreverent songs include “Hot Toxic Love,” “Evil is Hot,” “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore,” “Everybody Dies!” and “Who Will Save New Jersey?” Bryan’s wide-ranging score taps multiple rock styles, including hard rock, ballads and Motown.
“Every number is catchy and fun, and I find it quintessential musical comedy,” Tyrl said. Interviewed during rehearsals, he said he found himself “humming the score every single day.”
Tyrl said he’s “working with a dream team” that starts with his founding partner and scenic designer Kristin Campbell and includes lighting designer Harrison Haug, a prominent creative force at Knott’s Berry Farm; and costume and makeup designer Marci Alberti (whom Tyrl praised for her work on Wayward’s “Twelfth Night – Galactic Farce”).
Musical director Stephen Hulsey returns after teaming with Tyrl on Wayward’s “Ordinary Days,” and the team is rounded out by choreographer Keenah Armitage and props designer Natalie Silva.
Tyrl is just as effusive in describing the talent of his five cast members, which he says “across the board is off the charts.”
Lead Joe Stein plays Melvin Ferd III before morphing into the title character. Madison Stirrett is Sarah, his would-be lady love. Natalie Giannosa is double-cast as baddie Mayor Babs Belgoody and as Melvin’s mom. All remaining roles are essayed by just two actors. Although listed simply as “White Dude” and “Black Dude,” Cody Bianchi and Justin Crawford essay ten roles apiece.
“We are working hard to make it an experience which our audience will want to see twice,” Tyrl noted. “It’s that good and that fun.”
More than anything, though, Tyrl said he’s enamored of the talent of the actors and creative team.
“It’s just off the charts – again, a dream team. There’s gonna be a polish and a patina to this that I do think will be Broadway level.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 38 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
‘The Toxic Avenger’
Location: Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana
Run dates/curtain times: April 22-May 8. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 7:30 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m.
Tickets: $25 general, $15 student
Information: 657-205-6273, thewaywardartist.org