It’s doubtful that many people still remember Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman’s 1984 film The Toxic Avenger nowadays. Perhaps the epitome of B-Movie campy body horror, the film is one of the single most nauseating experiences this reviewer has ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The story of a dweeb-y mop boy at a New Jersey health club who becomes a hyper-violent vigilante after a group of sociopathic sex-crazed exercise nuts chase him into a vat of nonspecific toxic waste, the film appears to be expressly made for the purpose of being watched while high, while those who are sober are left to ponder the film’s many gross-out moments without the refuge of a marijuana haze. In short, it is a truly terrible movie, not only in its violence, but in its writing, direction, and especially acting.
It therefore seems unusual that somebody would decide to turn The Toxic Avenger into a work of musical theatre, as the film is too self-aware to be parodied, but not containing of enough merit in and of itself to be given the kind of “hey, remember when this happened in the movie?”-style treatment that musicals like Monty Python’s Spamalot or A Christmas Story: The Musical have received the reasonable successful ends in years past. Thankfully, David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, who wrote the 2010 musical Memphis, have opted for the third route. The Toxic Avenger, the musical, currently running in a production at The Stage, San Jose, uses the film’s basic preface—a nerdy boy gets turned into a supernaturally strong green monster as a result of toxic waste, and then decides to become a hyper violent vigilante—to tell a story of its own.
Here the titular avenger becomes a vigilante in the name of environmentalism, choosing to rip off the heads and pull out the intestines of those who work to pollute the earth, a task which he performs in the name of Sarah, the blind blonde with a killer bod who works at the local library who Melvin (or Toxie, depending on which stage of the show you find him in) longs to get with. The main villain of the musical is, like the film, the mayor of the town, though instead of being an overweight slob who is the head honcho for a drug-trafficking ring, he becomes a she, and she is a woman who seeks to dump as much waste into the New Jersey bay as possible, all in the name of profit for herself.
Being that the musical is basically its own self-contained entity, and never brings up the film in more than passing reference, it thankfully is able to stand on its own two feet as a genuine work of musical comedy, and a decently funny one at that—not hilarious, mind you. While there are laughs to be had at the cheesy violence and at the comedy of economy (there are only five members in the cast, who play well over a dozen roles), the jokes aren’t exactly razor sharp, the punchlines almost always going for the cheap joke. The score, too, while composed of decently well-crafted pop songs, has lyrics that read like those conjured up in improvised musicals, which is to say that they rhyme but often seem to do little more than that (Tomaville, Tomaville/if the pollution doesn’t getcha/the aroma will).
What makes it all come together into an effective musical comedy is the cast at The Stage, which is having enough fun and imbued with enough natural talent to somehow make the whole thing click. No, you won’t be laughing too much during this production, but you certainly will be smiling for the show’s entire two hour and ten minute runtime (including intermission). It helps also that this production is one of the most well-sung performances of a musical I’ve seen in the San Francisco Bay Area before. Will Springhorn Jr. as Melvin (later Toxie) is just right, his overly-exaggerated persona never wandering into the territory of irritating and his singing voice appropriately grungy for the role. Courtney Hatcher as Sarah suffers from the fact that her character is not particularly sympathetic or funny, but she makes the most with what she has, her physicality being one of the highlights of the show. Allison F. Rich, who appears in almost every single production at The Stage, is the highlight of the cast, her dual performance as the Mayor and as Melvin’s mother proving to be remarkably funny. Her rendition of “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” (you can probably ascertain the musical’s tone at this point) is absolutely the highlight of the evening, a one-woman production number that simply brings the house down. Joshua Marx and Branden Noel Thomas fill out the cast, both playing a variety of bit parts that make up the ensemble, and are both very fun to watch. Director Jonathan Rhys Williams’s staging needed to ramp up the pace and could use a bit more focus, but proved adept enough at showcasing the actors’ talents, which is where the heart of this production lies.
It’s a shame to even have to mention it, but the fact is that the production is not up to the quality of The Stage’s cast, with both Vijay M. Rajan’s video projections and Steve Schoenbeck’s sound design out of sync at the performance that I attended. It’s more than probable that these elements are fixed at this point, but one shouldn’t attend The Toxic Avenger with the expectation that the show is of the quality of New York production, fun though it is. This is a rarity for The Stage, which has proven in many productions past that it is completely capable of productions that rival those you can see anywhere else in the country.
Don’t go to The Toxic Avenger expecting a masterpiece, or even a masterpiece of comedy. Instead, it serves merely as an enjoyable pastime that will doubtless keep you entertained, just as doubtlessly as it will fade from your memory in eventuality. In a way, it’s perfect for a summer’s evening, though you won’t be kicking yourself if you end up not seeing it.
The Toxic Avenger plays through July 16th at The Stage in Downtown San Jose. Tickets and information available here.