Benji Sperring

Review: The Toxic Avenger the Musical ★★★★ - This grungy green giant is on message loud and clear

Producer Katy Lipson (Aria Entertainment) has a sure eye – and ear – for a hit musical. Between a summer of new musical theatre at The Other Palace, including Some Lovers, Burt Bacharach’s first for years, and the imminent autumn transfer of a sell-out immersive version of tribal rock musical Hair arriving at London’s Vaults from Manchester’s Hope Mills Theatre, comes this West End transfer of a musical that had a hugely successful first outing at Southwark Playhouse.

It isn’t the first high-camp schlock horror movie to make it from screen to stage, though it may be the weirdest (and loudest). Like soulmate Little Shop of Horrors, it’s based on a movie with a musical score added here by David Bryan (yes, Bon Jovi’s keyboardist David Bryan Rashbaum!). In place of the film’s comic-book biffs and bangs – enough to employ an army of Foley artists and stunt-persons – Joe DiPietro’s adaptation of Lloyd Kaufman’s (with Joe Ritter) bracingly violent screenplay has Benji Sperring’s fast-moving, out and loud, in-yer-face direction; designer takis’ versatile three-tier set, incorporating huge vats, library, beauty salon and much more; a loud and lovely five-piece band led by musical Wunderkind Alex Beetschen – and just five extraordinary triple threats playing a cast of (almost) thousands.

In fictional New Jersey town Tromaville, the dastardly Mayor ruthlessly exploits local resources, dumps waste like there’s no tomorrow and is behind local crime syndicates. Meanwhile puny weakling Melvyn is bullied mercilessly until his tormentors crown their violence by throwing him into a vat of toxic waste, transforming him into the (admittedly hideous) superhero Toxic Avenger – green in colour and credentials – sworn to cleanse Tromaville of waste and bullies, including the Mayor; and soon, beloved of pretty, blind librarian Sarah, who ‘sees’ him not exactly for what he is, as she’s convinced ‘Toxie’ is an exotic French name.

Where the film split Melvin/Toxie between two actors, Mark Anderson curls up as Melvin and more than mans up for Toxie. Natalie Hope achieves a spectacular double as sexually predatory, vampish Mayor, her shocking pink décolletage an offensive weapon (the film has a man in suit!), with lightning changes into Melvin’s Mum in hairnet and housecoat – even actually duetting with herself! Ché Francis’ ‘Black Dude’ and Oscar Conlon-Morrey’s ‘White Dude’ morph miraculously into multiple pairs of thugs, henchmen, cops and hilariously, girlfriends. Emma Salvo just gets to be plucky Sarah, in mismatched pop socks, and constantly mislaying her white cane – she really goes for the gleefully politically incorrect, definitely ‘blind’ rather than ‘visually impaired’. All five and their hard-working swing/understudies, Sophia Lewis and Peter Bindloss, have huge, true voices to carry Bryan’s witty (and mostly audible) lyrics. An intoxicatingly tasty – and tasteless – treat.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Irina Chira

The Toxic Avenger the Musical runs until Sunday 3 December. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat; exc. 3 Oct), 3.30pm (Sat only), 3pm & 6.30pm (Sun only). £19.50-£59.50. Arts Theatre, WC2HL 7JB.

Review: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying ★★★ - Guys and Dolls meets Mad Men in musical satire on big business

New Yorkers Abe Burrows (Borowitz), Willie Gilbert (Gomberg) and Jack Weinstock did not invent the title of their 1961 musical satire on big business. It’s actually based on this best-selling lampoon of contemporary office life in 1950s USA, disguised as a self-improvement handbook. Clutching the book he consults on every step of the corporate ladder he climbs from window cleaner to chairman of the board, their anti-hero J Pierrepont Finch really lives up to the book’s subtitle, "The dastard's guide to fame and fortune". Burrows had worked with Frank Loesser on Guys and Dolls and the marriage of witty, amoral book with jaunty music and slick lyrics ensured the show’s award-winning success.

So what’s not to like? Amoral corporate greed and ruthlessness is a hardy perennial and even company boss, JB Biggley’s name sounds like a topical joke trumping the adverb coined by the businessman who won America ‘bigly’ himself.  Well, time is a cruel master and the sensibilities of the 1960s don’t easily translate. Just as with Promises Promises, revived earlier this year, the sexism may be satirised, but it’s still hard to swallow. These gals with cinched-in waists emphasising their curves are reduced to wives-in-waiting, whiling away time as secretaries (and occasionally mistresses).

Pneumatic blonde, Hedy La Rue, a career ‘bit on the side’ played to the hilt by Lizzii Hills, does not share the ambition of Mad Men’s aspiring copywriters: it’s an LA perfume counter or marriage for her. And while Andrew C Wadsworth perfectly captures the cynical charm of Biggley himself, a fun creation who secretly knits for relaxation in his top-floor executive suite, Marc Pickering’s gleefully ruthless Finch is a real Richard III. Still, anti-heroes can be compelling and indeed Hannah Grover’s sunny Rosemary, the perfect secretary, manages to swallow her reservations and put her resourcefulness at his disposal, even as he puts his naked ambition before his love for her.

Director Benji Sperring’s almost cartoonish performing style works with the material, matched by Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography and Mike Lees’ pastiches of 60s corporate clothing, complete with wonderful fluorescent coloured shoes. Lee’s art deco design – steps leading to matching lift doors – provides an appropriate backdrop for the frenetic comings and goings of these stock characters. MD Ben Ferguson’s excellent small band ignites Loesser’s music, instantly appealing but not particularly memorable, with the exception of the now standard number 'I Believe in You'.

This is as fine a version of this collectors’ item as you are likely to see, a great showcase for its 10-strong cast and all involved, but maybe the catch is that a modern audience does not want to see the Finches of this world actually succeed in business without really trying.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Darren Bell

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying runs until Saturday 22 April. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed & Sat only). Wilton's Music Hall, E1 8JB. 020 7702 2789.

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