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The Toxic Avenger

Courtney Hatcher, Brandon Noel Thomas, Joshua Marx, Allison F. Rich, Will Springhorn Jr. Photo by Dave Lipori.

They said someday you’ll find, All who love are blind,” from the song Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Who hasn’t reluctantly agreed to go see something only to be really taken with it? If you don’t feel that superhero stories are for you, try The Toxic Avenger, a wonderfully written, produced, and performed musical that should leave you smiling, laughing, and tapping your feet throughout.

Melvin Ferd is a poor physical specimen – weak and plain looking. Even the blind librarian who finds everyone attractive, jumps back when she feels his face. They are both denizens of Tromaville, New Jersey, the most polluted town in the most polluted state in the country (“just follow the smell!”). The set up is that Melvin finds that the corrupt mayor is behind the company that is behind the local pollution. Confronting the mayor, he soon finds himself dipped in toxic waste by her goons. Emerging as a scaly, green creature even uglier than before, one eye has migrated half way down his cheek. But he does have rippling muscles and superpowers and so begins to fight the evil polluters of his fair state.

Based on the 1984 film of the same name, at one level the show is your typical campy, fun-filled, superhero/adventure/comedy/romance, studded with tuneful, rhythmic rock and roll music. But New Jersey was seriously polluted from many industrial sources at that time, and the film followed closely on the revelations of the disastrous pollution of the Love Canal in Niagara Falls. So the Avenger’s issues were salient and timely. They also resonate today – think Flint, Michigan. Other underlying themes handled in a humorous fashion are political corruption, socialization, and handicaps.

The play is brought to life by an outstanding group of five actors. In the title role, Will Springhorn, Jr. fits the role of geeky Melvin well, conveying a fervor for saving the environment from evil forces but suffering an inferiority complex in dealing with women. He carries the social unease forward to his Avenger identity, but physically bounds around with great energy and enthusiasm.

Courtney Hatcher totally delights as the delectable blind librarian, Sarah. Despite her vacant eyes, she beams with a winning toothy smile, a squeaky voice, and an irrepressible enthusiasm that makes for a magnetic and adorable characterization as the girl of the Avenger’s dreams. Her zest is matched by Alison Rich. Harshly drawn in all red and black as Mayor Babs Belgoody, she is severe, sexy, and bitchy as she chews up the scenery with relish. Rich doubles as Ma Ferd, Melvin’s frumpy Jewish mother with curly red hair, who is loving, but admits that Melvin is “such a disappointment.” One of her amusing turns (literally) is when she plays a scene stolen from the musical Jekyll and Hyde in which each side of her body is costumed as one of her characters. She flings about, exposing one side at a time to the audience to depict the two women in conflict.

Often it’s easy to skip ensemble players in a review, but Joshua Marx and Branden Noel Thomas get a lot of stage time in numerous roles, which they handle with great skill. In particular, Marx looks the perfect selection from central casting as a cop, and Thomas, who is a black male, is a scream in black female parts. All of the actors sing well, though Thomas’s vocal quality and high range belie the fact that he purportedly trained as a bass.

The other standout of the production is Michael Palumbo’s scenic and lighting design. Appropriately, the theme of the set is toxic waste. Props like beds and library book carts are wheeled in when needed, but the big effect comes from wide projection screen. Comic book style graphics are used to represent various interiors and exteriors throughout, and they add a richness to the scenery.

As a stage show, The Toxic Avenger lacks the “pow” and “bam” you expect from superhero movies, but it more than compensates with a lively script and an infectious musical score. Song titles alone should give some sense of the fun in store – Thank God She’s Blind, Hot Toxic Love, Evil is Hot, and the lovely and subtle Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore.

The Toxic Avenger based on Lloyd Kaufman’s movie, with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music and lyrics by David Bryan, is produced by San Jose Stage and plays at their stage at 490 South First Street, San Jose, through July 16, 2017.

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