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'Toxic' times: A campy B-movie gets a musical makeover at the Underground

Melvin, played by Evan Kelly, emerges from a toxic waste vat during a rehearsal for "The Toxic Avenger" Tuesday. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com1 / 3
From left: Desmond Scott, Alexis Larson and Matias Valero dance during a rehearsal for "The Toxic Avenger," which opens tonight. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com2 / 3
From left: Matias Valero, Evan Kelly, Desmond Scott, Alexis Larson and Becky Farmer perform the opening song during rehearsal for "The Toxic Avenger" on Tuesday. The show opens tonight at The Underground. Tyler Schank / 3 / 3

Would-be director Jody Kujawa found the script for "The Toxic Avenger: The Musical" in the same place one might find a VHS copy of the 1984 cult classic that inspired it: at the bottom of a box, seemingly ignored in favor of other material.

That was a few years ago. Kujawa was on the season selection committee at the Duluth Playhouse, and he wasn't finding much that interested him in the stacks upon stacks of scripts, he said. Then, this:

"After four or five months of reading mind-numbing stuff or mediocre scripts, every once in awhile you find something that gets you," Kujawa said. "I took it home, read it, listened to the music online. It's funny. It's a higher quality than the movie, but it has that spirit about it: the don't give a f— attitude that was really fun."

The rest of committee agreed — and he was tagged as its director.

"The Toxic Avenger" is the story of Melvin, the classic cinematic nerd, who falls into a vat of toxic waste and develops a bubbled-puckered-boiled face and Hulk-ian strength, which he uses for good. His issue du jour: thwarting Tromaville's mayor, who seems bent on ruining the environment.

The Austin Chronicle called "The Toxic Avenger," the movie that "built the house of Troma" — a brand known for this specific style of purposefully terrible movies. The musical, with tunes by David Bryan of Bon Jovi, resembles it — though no one points a gun at a baby's face or runs over a kid on a bicycle like in the movie.

"There are some off-color jokes in it," Kujawa said. "It's not the most politically correct thing that anybody has ever seen. I don't think it ever goes too far. None of it is mean spirited.

"I challenge the public on that," he added. "I'll fight them."


"(It) might be trash, but ..." begins a movie blurb delivered by review in the New York Times in reference to "The Toxic Avenger." The 1984 movie starring no one you know belongs to that specialized genre that played well on the USA Network's "Up All Night" during a less politically correct century. (Think: Gilbert Gottfried, Rhonda Shear.) A car window is filled with empty Budweiser cans. It's cool to smoke at the gym. Limbs are easily removed from bodies. Green vats of toxic waste are transported, without lids, in the bed of a truck while the truck drivers are face deep in drugs.

And these are the least of the offensive moments.

Kujawa first saw a heavily-edited version on television when he was a teenager.

"I had a fixation with (stuff) like that," he said, describing it as the kind of movie you find sitting in the back of the video store.

It's the cult classic triple threat: the storyline is hokey, the acting is ... big, and the dialogue is like sixth-grade fan fiction.

Consider the eyeball popping freak-out of Bozo, a hot-shot guy who plays hit-n-run for sport, when faced with the dweeby Melvin. "He's stressin' me, Julie. He's stressin' me! I can't take it, Julie, I cannot take it! He's screwin' up my karma!"

As for the NYT's "but ...": The reviewer seemingly had an eye for Incredible Hulk spoofs: "It has a maniacally farcical sense of humor, and Tromaville's evildoers are dispatched in ingenious ways. One is dry-cleaned to death, another made into a pizza, a third partly french-fried," Stephen Holden wrote in the 1986 review.


The musical has the essense of the movie, but focuses more on one bad guy — in this case, mayor Babs Belgoody, played by Becky Farmer. The titular avenger (Evan Kelly) is still dweeby, and there is still a love story with Sarah, a blind librarian.

Melvin becomes an enemy of the mayor when he realizes her shenanigans could ruin the environment. His first act as the newly green creature is to rescue Sarah from the mayor's muscle. He spends his time pining for Sarah, without letting her know about his unconventional aesthetic, and trying to rid the town of the toxic vats. Cue the mayor's revenge and the city's adulation.

When it made its European debut, the Telegraph called it a "gloriously silly, perfectly executed, can't-wipe-the-grin-off triumph" (and noted that the "easily offended" should look elsewhere).

The signature piece is the green lumpy latex mask made by Dan Uebel. It has offset eyeballs, an inner ear monitor and its own microphone.

"It's very sweaty," Kelly confirmed, who described the whole Toxic Avenger getup as "less like wearing clothing and more like you're wearing a pretty advanced Halloween costume."

Kelly, too, was a fan of the movie and has had his eye on the role since he heard the script was floating around town.

In the movie, Melvin is a custodian at a health club. In the musical, he is not. Still, Kujawa has kept the classic mop as part of the set pieces.

"Because I love it," he said.


What: "The Toxic Avenger"

When: Opens at 7:30 p.m. today, plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Aug. 18

Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.

Tickets: $20 at