September 30, 2008

B-Movie Turns into B-Musical


Not all monsters come from Transylvania.

Some monsters come from New Jersey. In fact, no monster called the Toxic Avenger could really come from anywhere else.

"I like to think of this as an offbeat valentine to New Jersey," says Joe DiPietro, the Oradell-born playwright who has collaborated with Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan on the unlikeliest musical comedy premise since the man-eating plant from "Little Shop of Horrors" sang for his supper. That's right - an all-singing, all- dancing, all-toxic musical version of the 1985 cult-movie classic "The Toxic Avenger."

"Monsters and mutants just make for a very theatrical experience," says DiPietro, who wrote the book and lyrics for the world-premiere show, directed by John Rando (Broadway's "Urinetown") and running at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick starting Tuesday and running through Nov. 2.

Fans of the original B-movie horror spoof, or of Troma Entertainment, which produced it and other quirky entertainments ("The Class of Nuke 'Em High,""Tromeo and Juliet" and "Cannibal! The Musical"), won't need to be reminded that "The Toxic Avenger" is the story of nerdy Melvin, a health-club janitor who acquires superpowers when he accidentally falls into a drum of toxic waste. As the muscle-bound, mucous-faced Toxic Avenger (Nick Cordero in this production), he battles the baddies of Tromaville, N.J., and romances a blind librarian (Audra Blaser) who cannot see his festering features.

"What I especially love about 'The Toxic Avenger' is the love story at the core, which is essentially 'Beauty and the Beast,' " DiPietro says. "This is a fun musical, but it also has a heart to it."

DiPietro, a 1980 graduate of River Dell High School, was barely out of his teens when he saw the first "Toxic Avenger" movie (there were several sequels and a children's TV cartoon).

"It's kind of a movie for young guys," he says. "Having a few beers -- or something else -- in you probably helps with that movie. But I remember it having its charms and its fun."

In the years since, DiPietro has become a highly successful writer, associated for many years with the now-defunct American Stage Company in Teaneck, for which he became the de facto house playwright. Several of the shows he created for the company went on to New York, notably "Over the River and Through the Woods," and "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" (reportedly the longest- running off-Broadway musical revue ever, with 4,500 performances).

But his career took a fateful turn in 2002, when he came up with the book and lyrics for a musical, "Memphis," about the 1950s origins of rock-and-roll. For this project, clearly, a standard Broadway-style composer would not do.

"I said, 'God, I know a lot of theatrical composers, but I want to do this with a rock-and-roll guy,' " he recalls. "What happened is, my agent sent out the script, and a few months later I got a call: 'I'm David Bryan, I'm the keyboardist for Bon Jovi, and I just read your script, and I want to know how I can write the score for 'Memphis.' "

Stunned, but retaining his professional poise, DiPietro told him to take one of the lyrics from the script, turn it into a song, and they would chat.

"Two days later there was a CD at my doorstep," DiPietro says. "I listened to it once, and said, 'This is the guy.' "

"Memphis" (still playing at California's La Jolla Playhouse) naturally has a 1950s sound. For "Toxic Avenger," their second collaboration, DiPietro and Bryan struck out in a new musical direction. The show, scored for a four-piece ensemble, has a 1980s Jersey hair band sound that resembles, more than anything - what else? - Bon Jovi.

Among the prospective hits: "Hot Toxic Love,""Thank God She's Blind" and "A Brand New Day in New Jersey":

"It's a brand new day in New Jersey

There is new air in the sky

You can breathe now in New Jersey

So you won't get cancer and die ..."

It should be explained that, in this 21st-century redux of the movie, "green" issues of pollution and global warming are out front. "We don't hit you over the head with it, but that's part of it," DiPietro says. "One of his [the Toxic Avenger's] missions is to end global warming."

In other ways, too, the five-actor show takes liberties with the film, DiPietro says. But in the end, both come down to the same thing -- a big, campy, lovable Jersey joke. And why not?

"When I started writing this show, I started asking friends who lived in Europe and in other parts of the U.S., what's your image of New Jersey? And they all said, 'Pollution and "The Sopranos." ' So I said, 'Let's send that up a bit.' "


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