Katy Lipson

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. www.toxicavengermusical.co.uk

Review: That’s Jewish Entertainment ★★★ - Much to discover and enjoy in a canter from cantor to cabaret

There was a terrific compilation movie that took the title of much-loved song That’s Entertainment (written by Jewish duo Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz for the MGM film The Band Wagon) to celebrate the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio’s prodigious output; celebrating songs by Jewish composers and lyricists written for films produced by a studio founded and run by the eponymous Jewish entertainment moguls. Producer Katy Lipson proves her love and knowledge of "the magic of the musical" by touring her show The MGM Story this February. So in a way That’s Jewish Entertainment is a given, but there’s still so much to discover and enjoy as four talented performers and a four-strong band give their all to entertaining Yiddish style and tracing the trajectory of Jewish entertainment from shtetl to showbiz.

Kate Golledge directs, starring gals Joanna Lee (the petite brunette one) and Emma Odell (the tall blonde one) and guys Matthew Barrow (the bearded one) and David McKechnie (the smooth one). They dress as individuals (there's no designer credit, but lighting designer Ben M Rogers and programmer Toby Darvill provide a glitzy backdrop of twinkling lights), but their powerful voices blend beautifully (musical director Charlie Ingles, arranger Andy Collyer) and they move as one (choreography Adam Scown). And just when you think McKechnie has nailed Groucho Marx, Barrow takes over with the next quip. Similarly both Odell and Lee get to give their Sophie Tucker at different stages of the red hot mamma's long career.

Opening with a perky new title number of his own, writer Chris Burgess traces the rise and rise of Jewish entertainers on stage and screen and behind the scenes pulling the strings – both creative and financial – from those first valiant 19th-century arrivals from the shtetl to the second migration to Hollywood and through two world wars. He's mindful of the emotional baggage and the legacy of the music of the old country; and the outside events and forces buffeting the Jewish community. The Holocaust looms largest, of course. Burgess includes the powerful song of the defiant Jewish partisans The Final Road in his own excellent translation, and explores the endemic antisemitism in the USA that means so many Jews keep a low profile, even in showbiz, often deploring the overtly Jewish shtick of Jackie Mason and even Mel Brooks.

The best nuggets are the gallop through the schmaltzy plot of The Jazz Singer (his was just one of the mamas behind all those papas) and the heart and soul in all those Yiddish gems contrasting with the glitz. Whether you are Jewish or not, it would be hard not find something to entertain you here.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Pamela Raith

That’s Jewish Entertainment runs until Saturday 11 March in London and on Sunday 12 March in Hertfordshire. Details below:

London: 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 4pm (Sun only), 3pm (25 Feb, 4 & 11 Mar only). £18-£22, £16-£20 concs. Upstairs at the Gatehouse, N6 4BD. 020 8340 3488. www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com

Hertfordshire: 7.30pm & 3.30pm. £20. Radlett Centre, WD7 8HL. 01923 859291. www.radlettcentre.co.uk

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