Stage preview: One-legged dancer taps first starring role in CLO Cabaret's 'The Toxic Avenger'
September 21, 2016 12:00 AM
Kate Sexton as "Sarah" and Evan Ruggiero as "Melvin Ferd the Third" perform a scene in the Pittsburgh CLO production of "Toxic Avenger."
Evan Ruggiero in Pittsburgh CLO's "The Toxic AVender."
From left, Quinn Patrick Shannon, Evan Ruggiero and Billy Mason in Pittsburgh CLO's "The Toxic Avenger."
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Evan Ruggiero’s first audition for the Pittsburgh CLO ensemble earned a callback. He arrived ready to dance, but that wasn’t the hard part of the audition.
“I remember walking up to the choreographer and saying, ‘Just to give you a heads-up, I have one leg.’ ”
Mr. Ruggiero was used to being the center of attention, performing as a one-legged tap dancer in solo shows at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. For CLO, he was trying to win a job, surrounded by others who were trying to do the same.
“It was nerve-wracking and scary, because I knew everyone was staring at me,” he said.
‘The Toxic Avenger’
Where: CLO Cabaret at the Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown.
When: Thursday-Dec. 18. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $38-$54; clocabaret.com or 412-456-6666.
Looking back on that day, between rehearsals for a new CLO Cabaret production, he was in a different situation, relishing his role as a soon-to-be leading man.
It was CLO that gave Mr. Ruggiero his first job as the member of a musical theater ensemble, in “Man of La Mancha”; his first featured role, as the Pied Piper in “Shrek”; and now, his first starring role, as the title character in “The Toxic Avenger.”
Seated beside his co-star, Point Park University alumna Kate Sexton, his biggest worry was wearing a mask that makes it difficult to see — while also turning him from mild-mannered Melvin Ferd, the Third, into Toxie, a heroic monster created in a toxic waste accident.
“I’m claustrophobic. Wearing that mask would be tough,” said Ms. Sexton, who plays Melvin’s love interest, Sarah the blind librarian.
“Yeah, one eye is covered up, I’m missing a leg,” Mr. Ruggiero said, shrugging.
The 25-year-old New Jersey dancer was a child performer on stages including Lincoln Center when he went on to Montclair State University. At 19, he was diagnosed with cancer in his right leg. After 10 surgeries and a recurrence of the cancer, the leg was amputated. He also had two operations to remove tumors from his lungs.
Then, after 16 months of intensive chemotherapy, he began figuring out how to be a one-legged dancer. A friend urged him to post a YouTube video of his progress, and it was seen by Ellen DeGeneres, who two years ago invited him onto her daytime talk show.
She talked of the “ridiculousness” of how the littlest things can put us out of sorts. “And then someone like you comes along to remind us … you just go on.” And then she asked Mr. Ruggiero to dance and gave him $10,000 to help cover his college costs.
That was two years ago, before he had proved he could hold his own in a long musical theater run.
Now the actor — @Lord_PegLeg on Twitter — and director Wes Grantom have worked Mr. Ruggiero’s missing leg into Toxie’s story, with the help of A Step Ahead Prosthetics, the Long Island company that has made several of his prosthetic legs. He explained how it would work in the show but then realized to say too much would ruin the moment.
“The Toxic Avenger” is set in a junkyard in New Jersey, a state known for music icons from Sinatra to Springsteen and its, um, pungent waste dumps. The rock musical is by Jersey rocker Dave Bryan of Bon Jovi and writer Joe DiPietro (Tony-winning musical “Memphis”). The inspiration was the cult film of the same name, a comedy-horror spoof by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, with ’80s-inspired music.
New York-based Sexton, a New Hampshire native, was such a fan of “The Toxic Avenger,” she said she had to audition. She is joined in the cast by fellow Point Park grads and CLO Cabaret veterans Quinn Patrick Shannon and Caroline Nicolian, who were seniors when she was a freshman, and local actor Billy Mason.
Mr. Ruggiero was aware of “The Toxic Avenger” because of the New Jersey connection. After his freshman year in college, he was working on a show in Sayreville, N.J. — Mr. Bryan’s hometown — when a castmate brought in a CD and said that it was for a new show with a character, Sal the cop, based on her father.
“So we put the CD in, and it was, ‘New Jerseeey,’ ” he sang out, hair-band style. “So I had always known about the show, and because Old Bridge, where I’m from, is right next to Sayreville.”
CLO found its stars when they were paired during auditions, when Ms. Sexton reminded her partner that, “Just so you know, I’m not going to look at you ’cause I’m blind. He was like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ I just wanted to make sure that was OK.”
The characters’ disabilities are magnified by the heightened circumstances, and they also are played for laughs, which is a tough balance. The actress has moments in the show where she is able to reveal her inner longings.
“Really, it’s a basic love story — a comic book love story,” Ms. Sexton said.
“And the music!” added Mr. Ruggiero. “I grew up listening to this kind of music — the ’80s power ballads, Skid Row, Journey. And now, I get to sing David Bryan songs. I’m home!”
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
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