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Actor who survived cancer ready for Pittsburgh CLO's 'Toxic Avenger'

| Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, 6:33 p.m.
Evan Ruggiero as Toxie in Pittsburgh CLO's 'The Toxic Avenger'

After donning a fat suit to dance as one of the three little pigs, being locked in the village stock and enticing children as a tap-dancing Pied Piper in Pittsburgh CLO's summer production of “Shrek,” Evan Ruggiero thinks it will be easy being green.

“We put ‘Shrek' together in three days. It was one of the toughest shows I ever did,” Ruggiero says. “Moving forward, ‘The Toxic Avenger' will be a breeze.”

Ruggiero will play the mild-mannered environmentalist Melvin Nerd the Third, whose dip in a vat of toxic waste transforms him from 98 pounds of solid nerd to Toxie, New Jersey's first — and very green — superhero.

In 2008, script writer and lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer and lyricist David Bryan adapted Lloyd Kaufman's 1984 cult film for the stage.

While retaining the original title, they turned it into a spoofy, silly love story with an environmental twist.

They also added an original score with songs that include “Big Green Freak,” “Hot Toxic Love” and “Choose Me, Oprah.”

“This is endless fun. It's hysterical. It can be campy. It can be silly,” Ruggiero says.

Melvin wants to end global warming and clean up Tromaville, the most polluted town in New Jersey, and win the heart of the local librarian.

But there's a few Jersey barriers in his way, including a corrupt mayor and her two henchmen who deposit him into the radioactive waste bin.

He emerges with green skin, superhuman powers, dual personalities and an anger management problem.

Ruggiero can see a little of himself in both Melvin and Toxie.

While he was a college student, Ruggiero lost his leg to cancer.

“There definitely was a little of me within Melvin,” Ruggiero says. “I didn't want to go out and be seen. People would stare at me, and kids would point and ask questions. Looking at Melvin, I can draw from that.”

But his four-year battle with cancer, multiple surgeries and cancer also brought out his Toxie side.

“There's a point under chemo that you just naturally get angry. Just ask my mother,” he says. “You have outbursts of rage. I see that in Toxie. He's all about being green for the state of New Jersey. There are times he has to break the rules or rip off arms.”

Now cancer-free, he also is open to talking about and using his prosthetic leg in his work.

Ruggiero has performed his one-man show, “One-Legged Song and Dance Man” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as well as at the supper club Feinstein's/54 Below in New York City.

In Pittsburgh CLO's “Shrek the Musical,” he performed a tap dance with a peg leg as the Pied Piper.

“I had seen (film of legendary African-American tap dancer) Peg Leg Bates (and thought) if he can do it, I can do it,” he says.

For his performance in “The Toxic Avenger,” Ruggiero will use two different walking legs, as well as a special one he is having designed and built for the show.

“We definitely will have a lot of fun with the leg,” he says.

Alice Carter is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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