Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of The Graduate
Now, just a few years later, the same slapstick, screwy show opens at The Stage. While still hilarious and outrageous, The Toxic Avenger (Joe DiPietro, book and lyrics; David Bryan, music and lyrics) takes on a whole new meaning for audiences in 2017. Daily, today's audiences are witnessing new executive orders from a president demolishing the past eight years of environmental-friendly regulations. The Stage's timing for this area premiere of The Toxic Avenger is unfortunately too perfect.
Geeky (OK, totally nerdy) Melvin Ferd the Third is moved by a cry for help from citizens of his hometown, Tromavillea place they sing as being "between heaven and hell, don't need a map, just follow the smell" ("Who Will Save New Jersey"). Melvin vows to clean up the state, a promise that captures the admiration of Sarah, the town's blind librarian who cannot shelve books very well (they all seem to end up on the floor) but can direct him in the stacks to a secret file marked "Michele Bachman." Between his ogling side-glances toward the cute librarian, he discovers that the politically powerful and kick-back-hungry mayor of the town, Babs Belgoody, is in cahoots with the local industries to overrun Tromaville with poisonous, green gook.
That discovery leads Melvin on a mission to expose her to the world before she runs for governor, causing Belgoody to send her gooks (Sluggo and Bozo) to "Get the Geek" ("Spill his blood, spill his guts, he found me out, that little putz"). Melvin soon finds himself being dumped into a vat of toxic goo, emerging from the deadly pit just in time to save a passing-by Sarah from being raped by the mayor's two roughnecks. But Melvin is no longer Melvin, as is soon evident by his Godzilla-like "R-r-r-roar" and by his now gigantic, mutated, green body that oozes from open sores and has a deformed eyeball hanging from its socket. After announcing to Sluggo and Bozo in his new monstrous, singing voice that he is out to "Kick Your Ass," the Toxic Avenger begins a battle of wits and wills with the evil mayor. He also continues to fall deeper in love with the naïve but sex-hungry librarian who cannot see her new hero's face but can feel his muscle-thick thighs.
Much of the continuous fun of this show evolves from a cast of five who play at least a couple dozen characters, most taken on with sheer and silly exuberance by just two of them, Brandon Noel Thomas and Joshua Marx. Besides being the doomed Sluggo and Bozo (what's a lost arm, spleen, and set of intestines among friends?), the two repeatedly make astonishingly quick changes to appear in roles such as little old ladies, waste management executives, redneck police, back-up gal singers in hot pink skirts, a wacky scientist, and even an HMO doctorhimself freaked out by the "Big Green Freak." Each actor brings a dynamically powerful voice that, when joined in duet with the other, provides some of the night's best rock music numbers of crystal-clear, close-knit harmony. Mr. Thomas in particular is fabulous when he appears in drag in such numbers as "My Big French Boyfriend" and "All Men Are Freaks," in which he not only twists and swirls his hips and thighs, but also wraps his sung notes in tones that circle upward to amazingly beautiful heights before sliding back into a low, resolute register.
Allison F. Rich is a master of split personalities who soon chucks her initial nunnery robes to don the breast-showing, tight-fitting red dress of a mayor whose evilness to the core is seen in glaring eyes that are more like those drawn by a cartoonist than actually being parts of a living body. And then in an instant, she appears as the frumpy, housecoat-wearing mother of Melvin (Ma Ferd). As both, Ms. Rich brings a rock-star voice that easily trumpets with the power-commanding attention that as mayor she demands and as Ma Ferd she increasingly uses to fight on behalf of her mutant son's survival. With the help of Lichtenstein-like, cartoon talking heads drawn by Lacey Bryant and projected by Vijay M. Rajan (just one small example of an evening of comic-book-like, projected drawings high in color and kitsch), Allison F. Rich switches in lightning speed between the costumes, voices, and persona of the two women in "Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore." All builds to one of the evening's biggest guffaw moments when Ms. Rich becomes both Ma and Mayor at once.
The blind librarian, as played by Courtney Hatcher, soon proves to be not the timid stereotype originally expected. Sarah has an itch to get in bed with a hot man; and the rock-hard chest of her new-found hero, whom she calls "Toxie," is enough to send her into "Hot Toxic Love." Ms. Hatcher's petite build belies the volume and vibrancy she is able to deliver in her singing as she shows time and again an ability to rock it out in hard-beat, sustained, and pulsating notes and phrases. (There are times when her groping about as a non-seeing librarian is both funny but also a bit uncomfortable to watch, as I wonder if the exaggerations cross too far over the P.C. line.)
In an otherwise stellar cast, the one somewhat weaker link is the star himself, Will Springhorn, Jr. As Melvin, he is just not totally convincing in either song or acting of his character's needed geekiness. It's as if he is trying too hard to be awkward and not quite getting there. As the Toxic Avenger, he at times is definitely funny in his mimic of a comic-book super hero (like when he performs his "super-human" jump to leap up four steps from floor to stage). He is also able to bring heart and personality to a character covered in a rubberized top and a grotesque mask whose lose neck reminds us that this is a satire of the pumped-up, realistic super heroes we often seen in summer films. But when he sings, there is an unevenness in his delivery that contrasts with the other four, stronger voices.
The songs and lyrics of Messieurs DiPietro and Bryan are for the most part individually forgettable once they have passed us by, but collectively there is a remaining sense of fun had by all. There is an ongoing guessing game of which well-known musical is being satirized by either situation, choreography, or music; and the list is long and varied (Urinetown to Little Shop of Horrors, Les Misérables, Hairspray, and more). Brian Allan's music direction of the five-piece, on-stage band is outstanding throughout; and even though the rock beats are often contagiously and loudly pounding, they never so dominate as to drown out the singers (kudos going also to Steve Schoenbeck's sound management).
The toxic dump aspects of Michael Palumbo's scenic design are simple and effective, and his lighting design highlights the sense of cartoon animation that the direction of Jonathan Rhys Williams is looking for. Ashley Garlick's costumes are a hoot and a half and come with all the bright color, slick and sleazy, and tongue-in-cheek designs that remind us of the Sunday funnies.
The Toxic Avenger is a solid choice by The Stage for summertime fun in much the same way local movie houses give us silly comedies and super-hero flicks June through August each year. But this particular summer, the high jinx antics and ridiculously silly situations of the DiPietro/Bryan satire take on a darker side when we quickly realize that there is a blond, male version of Mayor Babs living in a certain house of white in D.C.
The Toxic Avenger continues through July 16, 2017, San Jose Stage Company, 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA. Tickets are available at www.thestage.org or by calling the box office at 408-283-7142.