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I have to confess I’ve never heard of Troma Entertainment, the American B-Movie studio that made the quirky film on which this musical comedy is based. I think I’m going to have to search out some DVD’s because if they’re half as much fun as this show, they’ll be a treat. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much in a musical.

Geek Melvin Ferd the Third is worried about the pollution of his New Jersey town of Tomaville by New York City’s toxic dumping and, with the blind town librarian Sarah’s help, he tracks down the culprit, the city’s own Mayor, who is making a pile of money from it. She sends her henchmen after him and he gets thrown into a giant drum of the dreaded stuff, emerging as a mutant called Toxie, intent on cleaning up Tromaville and getting revenge on the Mayor and the love of Sarah. It’s style is cartoonish (think Little Shop of Horrors) which makes for fun musical theatre – as long as you can stomach the somewhat tasteless, though not viscous, jokes at the expense of blind Sarah.

Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, who wrote the rather good but very different Memphis before this, has written some great songs and his Memphis collaborator Joe DiPietro has provided a very funny book and lyrics. Mike Lees design and costumes are excellent, and the staging of Benji Sperring, with choreograhy by Lucie Pankhurst, serves the material really well. Alex Beetschen’s band sounds great and the vocals from the small cast of five are excellent.

What made the show for me, though, was five outstanding comic performances. They squeeze every ounce of humour out of the written material and much more. Mark Anderson is great as Melvin the Third, a nerd who transforms into gentle giant Toxie. Hannah Grover is delightful as Sarah the blind librarian, who is the butt of so many jokes. Lizzii Hills doubles up as the Mayor and Melvin’s Ma, at one point bringing the house down by duetting with herself. Above all, though, it was Marc Pickering and Ashley Samuels as White Dude and Black Dude, who play multiple roles (sometimes with extraordinarily fast costume changes) as henchmen, businessmen, policemen, female hairdressers, female backing singers, doctors and a brilliant folk singer, who both stole the show for me and made me laugh until my jaw was aching.

It was huge fun, all executed with sublime craftmanship – writing, staging, singing, playing and acting – and one of the best nights of musical comedy I’ve ever experienced. Not to be missed.

 

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Another catch-up courtesy of a January offer, and not really what I was expecting at all. The pastiche score, by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, the singing, the brilliant band and the dancing actually blew me away. I don’t think it’s as successful as a narrative musical, but as a purely musical experience it’s terrific.

They probably won’t like me for saying that it treads similar ground to Hairspray. That show was about the evils of segregation too, but in the world of the TV pop shows of 60’s Baltimore. This one’s in 50’s Memphis, but the underlying theme is the same, even though the treatment and style are very different. Memphis does benefit from taking place during the birth of rock and roll, though, and I have fond memories of visiting the city and visiting clubs on Beale Street ten years ago, so it resonates with me more.

Huey is a bit of a loser until he finds his vocation as a rebel DJ, his radio show quickly becoming No.1 in Memphis and graduating to his own TV show. He visits a black only club, which is as unacceptable as a black man visiting a white club, where he meets singer Felicia, who becomes friend, muse and ultimately lover. Their relationship is fraught with problems caused by segregation – she can’t appear on his show and they can’t be seen together in public (mixed marriage was illegal in some states, such as Tennessee, less than 50 years ago!). They both get opportunities to go to the bright lights of the north, but the price is too high for principled Huey and Felicia heads for the big time alone, despite the prejudice, while Huey heads back to his now ailing radio show.

I first saw Beverley Knight a  year ago in The Bodyguard and she impressed me greatly, as she does here. The West End needs to hang on to her. He’d done a lot before, though I didn’t know that, but Killian Donnelly really arrived with a bang in The Commitments in 2012 and he tops this with an even more sensational performance. In an excellent supporting cast, Jason Pennycooke gives yet another of his superb cameos. The ensemble is outstanding, with the dancing particularly thrilling.

The music and narrative aren’t joined up enough to make thoroughly satisfying musical theatre, but musically it’s simply wonderful.

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