‘Toxic Avenger’ wreaks havoc and laughs at Farmers Alley
KALAMAZOO, Mich.—“The earth is in crisis. It is a time in need of heroes.” So opens The Toxic Avenger, the preposterously silly 2008 musical based on the 1984 horror spoof B-movie turned cult classic, currently on offer at Farmers Alley Theatre. Though painfully prescient, what unfolds thereafter is more cartoonish than political (even though the lines blur off stage more every day) in this mildly satirical and entertaining show.
In Tromaville, New Jersey, where “if the pollution doesn’t get you the aroma will,” nerdy weakling Melvin, in love with the local librarian who happens to be blind, discovers the corporation responsible for overwhelming the town with pollution is owned by the mayor. After he confronts her, she sends a couple of thugs to take care of him Jersey style. When they dunk him in a vat of toxic waste, he is transformed into a hulk-like superhero who is nearly as sinister as he is heroic, full of rage and gruesomely violent.
It’s a pretty lame plot, hardly worthy of a comic book, and the book, from Joe Pietro, known for “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” is full of choice f-bombs and sophomoric humor that hovers somewhere below low-brow, while milking what it can from stereotype amid poking fun at itself. The music from Bon Jovi founding member David Bryan sounds, well, an awful lot like Bon Jovi with its unremarkable ‘80s pop-rock. Song titles that include “Hot Toxic Love,” “Evil is Hot,” “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore,” and “All Men are Freaks” indicate the level of sophistication here.
And yet, Farmers Alley has a history of excellence with edgy, boundary-pushing contemporary musicals such as “Urinetown,” the “Trailer Park” musicals, and the best of the B-movie-turned-musical genre, “Little Shop of Horrors”. And a lesser show such as Toxic Avenger is no exception. Even with sub-par raw materials, Director Robert Weiner, with a terrifically talented cast and crew, puts on an excellent and entertaining production.
Thanks to colorful lighting design from George Eric Perry, a highly functional and malleable set by Kristen Martino, terrific costumes by Nicole Peckens, and an overall concept that hangs together beautifully, the
show is visually appealing. Fight choreography by Ben Reigel and choreography and blocking by Robert Weiner keep the stage full with an ensemble of five, and make for pretty great physical comedy. Small moments of a big green monster bourree-ing off the stage after committing murder and slow-mo rolls of a cop with a gun create impressive hilarity.
Jarrad Biron Green is utterly convincing as both a nerd and a super hero “as green and crazy as Al Gore.” His performance is wildly physical and energetic and he manages to express, at turns, rage, puppy love, righteous indignation, and low self esteem.
Hannah Hesseltine plays an appropriately annoying Sarah, the blind librarian and ingenue who places high value on physical beauty. Her high-pitched voice is cartoonish, and her sex-appeal is tempered by a
child-like quality. Though the blind jokes get stale, she plays sight gags (wandering off stage, speaking into the crotch of a teddy bear) well. Like Green’s Melvin, her Sarah isn’t entirely sympathetic or likable, and she captures a surprising complexity of emotion. Together, their chemistry doesn’t add up to much, but individually, their performances are strong.
Jessica Medoff is a delightful presence, and she plays both the buxom crooked politician Gabs Belgoody and Melvin’s irritating mother for big laughs. She’s a fantastic dancer and physical comedienne, and her numbers, especially the one in which she plays both characters against each other, are among the show’s most memorable.
And even with these fine performances, the supporting cast of two steals the show. Greg Laux and Deon’te Goodman play a dynamic duo no matter which of the seemingly infinite characters they play, from homoerotic football player bullies to trashy Jersey girls to a Bruce Springsteen mocking folk singer and a horny scientist, these two embody camp at its best. Their surprising and delightful moments are exactly the kind of escapist humor we all need a little more of these days.
The ability to take mediocre material and transform it into something worthwhile is the mark of real talent if not the measure of an artist. Though a show like The Toxic Avenger could never be great art, at
Farmer’s Alley it’s an awfully fun night at the theatre.