Monday, July 13, 2009

Fun on a Shoestring: The Genius of John Rando

Last night, I had the privilege of watching "The Toxic Avenger," a musical based on the cult classic camp movies from, I believe, the 70's. I'd check, but the point is, frankly, irrelevant. "The Toxic Avenger" seemed doomed right from the start. This is, rather inexplicably, the third time a musical has been mounted based on the D-List horror movies, and neither of the previous two productions have been successful either commercially or critically. Granted, this version had some strong people behind it. The rock score is written by David Bryan, one of the founding members of the band Bon Jovi. The cast too (mostly relative unknowns) has one veteran: Nancy Opel, best known for her powerhouse performance as Mrs. Pennywise in the original cast of "Urinetown." Also from "Urinetown" is the director, John Rando, and it is chiefly because of Mr. Rando that this show was one of the most enjoyable nights at the theatre I've had since, well, since "Urinetown."

John Rando has become a fairly established director, despite a relatively short career. He has directed a few plays, such as the ill-fated "A Thousand Clowns" starring Tom Selleck in 2001. But his forte is undoubtedly the "stupid musical." This strength lies in Rando's ability to go all out. "Toxic" has some scenes that could come off as trashy had they not been exhaggerated to such a comic effect. For example, the ingenue is blind, and often delivers soliloquoys to the scenery, or even off the stage altogether. Another scene where she serves the title superfreak breakfast in bed becmes a whipped cream doused romp that you can't help but love. The production reinforces the idea that, if those involved in a production are enjoying being a part of it, the audience will enjoy watching. Nothing is more present on stage than unintentional tension. In "The Toxic Avenger," the characters are all having so much fun, you can't help but be sucked into their world.

Even better is when Rando has very little budget. Rando is able to effectively utilize the cheapness of his productions. For example, in "Urinetown," if a ghost of a character were to speak, there would always be a visible arm of a stage hand holding a spray can. Rather than try to pull off an effect that he knows would never work, Rando works with what he has, to tremendous comic effect. The small theater at The New Stages, where "Toxic" is being performed has limited lighting space, and a spotlight is provided by a cop holding a flashlight in one scene.

A third strength of Rando's (by no means his last strength, but at the very least, the final one to be mentioned in this post) is that he makes the band/orchestra present in a musical. Too often, the musicians in musicals are completely hidden, occasionally not even present whatsoever. Watching this music being produced, however, gives the audience a deeper appreciation of the music. Take "The Fantasticks" for example- the longest-running musical in the world, and longest running production in the United States period. The music, entirely played on piano and harp, is so integral to the play, that it is inconceivable to imagine a production where the pianist and harpist were not on stage. In "The Toxic Avenger" the band is onstage the entire time, often interacting with the performers (the aforementioned Mrs. Opel makes out with the guitarist after a powerful rock ballad.) They were even costumed appropriately to match the performance.

"The Toxic Avenger" is loads of fun for several reasons, but more than that, it is an exhibition of directing at its finest. Rando has managed to work with a script that will never win a Pulitzer, and managed to turn it into fine theater. His ability to find every moment he can, and make sure that nothing falls flat is incredibly admirable. And you don't need to be a slimy green toxic monster vigilante to realize that.


  1. I wish that I could see this!

    It sounds like Rando treats theater the way it ought to be treated: seriously. And I don't mean "we are professionals" seriously, I mean the Oscar Wilde "life's too short to be taken seriously". He finds inventive solutions to otherwise limiting problems.

    (I'm figuring out how to steal these gags as I type this...)

    Miles, you should read The Empty Space by Peter Brook. There's a whole section on 'Rough Theater' and it sounds like Rando really pulls that off.

  2. Have you ever seen/heard of "Return to the Forbidden Planet"? It was a musical on the West End circa 1980's, based (very) loosely on the 1956 movie "Forbidden Planet." It got mixed reviews but I'd consider it currently a cult classic, with a script made up entirely of cut-and-paste Shakespeare, a soundtrack of pop and rock songs from the 50's and 60's, and a setting of OUTER SPACE - aboard the good Starship Albatross. It's INCREDIBLY campy but when done right, I think it's one of the best things to ever grace the stage, and sounds like it has a lot in common with this.

    I think you make a good point about how one of the most crucial things for a good piece of theatre is that the people behind it really believe in it/have fun with it, regardless of the "quality" determined by critics. Otherwise, what are we doing?