Geelong has, at times, seemed reluctant to embrace the creativity of its community. Never was a town so perfectly laid out and positioned for hosting films, both international and local, a business that would create thousands of much needed jobs and bring much needed income to the region, and yet so often vehemently against the idea. Not outside of Europe is there such a high volume of theaters per square kilometer, and such a high population of truly extraordinary talent to use them per capita, and yet such a communal and political disdain for the performing arts. Only the truly ignorant would say creative industries aren’t profitable, but as much as Geelong is a creative town, it hosts far too many old-fashioned minds intent on looking backwards, rather than moving forwards.
One example of “forwards”, however, is Theatre of the Damned. Founded by Tony and Elise Dahl, their mission statement includes the parameter that everyone should have “the same opportunity to be in a stage production regardless of experience”. Excellent to see! Not that such a statement can’t backfire, but success is entirely impossible without considerable risk. Having said that, nothing screams “considerable risk” quite as loudly nor proudly as staging a musical version of Lloyd Kaufman’s bonkers cult movie “The Toxic Avenger”.
Not everyone is unfortunate enough to have seen the movie, but nobody knew what to expect as we entered the excellent Shenton Theatre, decked out as it was in absorbingly elaborate set pieces. A live micro-orchestra was conducted by Courtney Miller and the cast took to the stage to give us what we come for. What that is turns out to be an almost binary antithesis to Kaufman’s exercise in bad taste. Playwriter Joe Dipietro and songwriter David Bryan (of Bon Jovi) have turned Toxie’s tale into a fun, straightforward, almost family-friendly night of entertainment. Not that it does not demand a considerable amount from its production team, guided expertly by director Doug Mann and choreographer Xavier McGettigan. Together, they made a complicated mass of stagery seem fluid and simple, and the dances elegantly beautiful.
The rest is heaped on the shoulders of the cast, and in some cases, they could not have been better. Liam Erk is destined to be Gelong’s next favorite export, shows his quality as Melvin Ferd the Third, and undergoes a profound but truthful shift in physicality when he emerges as the mutated Toxie (and the somehow tastefully handled limb-ripping begins). Erk connects to Ferd so intimately that even when grotesquerie of his make-up or the sheer insanity of the piece threatened to spill over into absurdity, we never forgot the loveable nerd inside.
The bill also promises the “most memorable and unbelievable duet you’ll ever see on any stage” – a reach that far extends the grasp of this company – however that is not to say that the duet is not one of the most difficult this reviewer has ever seen. The musical battle between Toxie’s mother and the wicked mayor – both played by Alicia Miller – is a marvel of character work. Aside from suffering twice the demands of a single performance, it was evident Miller had done twice the difficult development and preparation for her characters. Only such devotion and finesse could have saved such a moment from spinning out of control, but in Miller’s hands it is not only believable, it’s brilliant. She is utterly breathtaking.
Theatre of the Damned deserve the full support of the Geelong community. They would be insane not to get behind it.
Written by Max Davine