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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Toxic Avenger
Mesa Encore Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Let the Right One In and Sisters in Law

Connor Wanless and Cassie Chilton
Photo Courtesy of Mesa Encore Theatre
I don't know why New Jersey always seems to get such a bad rap. Even Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan had no issue making fun of his home state in the musical adaptation of the sci-fi/horror, cult classic B movie The Toxic Avenger. Bryan wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics with bookwriter Joe DiPietro for this hilarious and silly musical, and Mesa Encore Theatre's production has an exceptional cast who throw themselves into their parts with reckless abandonment, resulting in non-stop hilarity and hijinks.

Set in the fictional town of Tromaville, New Jersey, and based on the 1984 film from Troma Pictures, The Toxic Avenger focuses on nerdy Melvin Ferd, who has made it his mission to clean up the nuclear waste in his hometown. However, the corrupt mayor of Tromaville, who we learn is behind the toxic dump, foils Melvin's plans when her thugs dump him into a vat of radioactive toxic waste. Fortunately, Melvin isn't killed but instead emerges from the dangerous goo as the Toxic Avenger, aka "Toxie," a radioactive monster with super human powers. Can this unlikely superhero save Tromaville and win the love of Sarah, the blind town librarian?

DiPietro's smart book is incredibly fast paced and very funny, and Bryan's varied rock score features fun, upbeat musical numbers with their lyrics clever, sharp, and exceptionally witty. The duo would go on to win the Tony for their score and book for Memphis, which opened on Broadway shortly after The Toxic Avenger made its Off-Broadway debut.

Director Louis Farber keeps the pace brisk with some fun added visual gags, and his talented, hardworking cast get big laughs with their sharp comic skills while also creating entirely lovable characters. Farber also ensures his leads are never too broad in their performances, which ensures the sweet heart of the story beats strongly.

Connor Wanless oozes charm and a sweet disposition as Mervin and when he turns into Toxie, he becomes a strong, forceful presence, yet Wanless ensures Mervin's warm heart never disappears. Emily Kamps is both sexy and ditzy as Sarah. Wanless and Kamps have good singing voices and create a winning romantic couple you root to succeed. Cassie Chilton is a comic delight as both the mayor and Melvin's mother. Her powerful and rich voice excels throughout, especially on the duet the two characters sing together, which is a comic tour de force and ends the first act on a humorous high note. Playing every other part in the show, of both sexes, Devon Mahon and Michael Thompson are simply superb and entirely hilarious. With just a change in wig and costume, Mahon and Thompson make each of the more than a dozen roles they play unique, with the fast-paced nature of their quick changes from one role to the next adding to the hilarity.

Lorenzo Slavin's music direction of the cast and excellent four-piece band delivers some impressive sounds, and Kat Bailes' choreography is bright and fun. Tiana Torrilhon-Wood's set design is simple but highly effective in depicting the many locations in the show, while the funny costumes by Allison Bauer and Jessica Tully and the winning hair and make-up designs by Rita Liegl add to the levity.

With an exceptional cast and excellent direction and creative elements, Mesa Encore Theatre's production of The Toxic Avenger is comically delicious and a superb presentation of this humorous musical that is a cross between a sweet love story and the absurd tale of a mutant freak who is just trying to save his home state.

The Toxic Avenger, through April 21, 2019 at Mesa Encore Theatre, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, Mesa AZ. For tickets and information, call 480-644-6500 or visit

Based on the film by Lloyd Kaufman and
Music & Lyrics by David Bryan
Book & Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Director: Louis Farber
Music Director: Lorenzo Slavin
Choreographer: Kat Bailes
Stage Manager: Emilio Castro
Set Designer: Tiana Torrilhon-Woods
Lighting Designer: Stacey Walston
Sound Designer: Peter Bish
Properties: Justin McBride
Costume Design: Allison Bauer & Jessica Tully
Hair/Make-Up: Rita Liegl
Producer: Rebecca Martinez

Melvin Ferd the Third & The Toxic Avenger: Connor Wanless
Sarah: Emily Kamps
Mayor Babs Belgoody / Ma Ferd/Nun: Cassie Chilton
White Dude: Devon Mahon
Black Dude: Michael Thompson