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Theater review: Timely "Toxic Avenger" features good singing and B-movie effects
Star-News - 10/30/2017
Oct. 30--With months of headlines about how, for decades, the company Chemours pumped toxic chemicals into the Cape Fear River -- a story broken by the StarNews, I'm proud to say -- Panache Theatrical Productions' staging of "The Toxic Avenger Musical" is pretty timely. Sometimes it feels like Wilmington could use its own version of The Toxic Avenger, the 98-pound-weakling-turned-mutant-hero who rips off the arms and legs of polluters and their minions first and asks questions later.
Panache's rough-hewn production of the fun, proudly tasteless musical -- directed by Anthony Lawson, it's based on the cult Troma Entertainment B-movie and features songs by Broadway heavyweight Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi rock star David Bryan -- delivers good comedy along with the show's angry environmental message and some consistently good singing and acting.
A few technical mishaps on Saturday made the show feel like a work in progress despite Amanda Hunter's rockin' band and Ross Helton's strong set strewn with bales of trash and barrels of green slime. It's worth seeing, though, and "The Toxic Avenger" runs at North Front Theatre -- which seems barely changed from its previous incarnation as City Stage -- through Sunday, Nov. 5, with rare Monday and Tuesday performances Oct. 30-31 as well.
The story centers on the nerdy Melvin (Brendan Carter), a would-be environmental activist. He lays out his plan to protect "Tromaville" from toxic waste in the rousing, goofy show opener "Who Will Save New Jersey?", but first he's got to find out who's allowing the waste to come in, a quest that leads him to blind, beautiful Sarah (Katie Villecco), the mayor's secretary.
With Sarah's unwitting help, Melvin finds documents proving the mayor (Kire Stenson) is behind the town's pollution. After confronting the mayor, Melvin gets a visit from her henchmen, who, in the course of roughing him up, accidentally knock him into a vat of toxic chemicals. From there, he's transformed from a skinny dweeb into a buff, smelly mutant with oozing skin and an eyeball that won't stay in its socket.
Now a folk hero called The Toxic Avenger who dispatches his enemies in hilariously gruesome fashion, Milton must evade the mayor's attempts to kill him with bleach while dealing with such troubling feelings as his impossible love for Sarah and his rage over being turned into a mutant.
Carter turns in a strong performance as Milton, singing beautifully during duets with Sarah ("Hot Toxic Love") and solo ballads ("Thank God She's Blind" and "You Tore My Heart Out" are both tuneful highlights) alike. He's hampered, though, by Toxie's disappointing costume -- a puffy body suit and an ill-fitting latex max covered in what looks like green oatmeal and accented with an awkward, dangling, ornament-like eyeball -- which is questionable even by B-movie standards.
Carter has a believably sweet chemistry with Villecco, who captures well Sarah's mix of earnest thick-headedness and hot-girl vanity, and she has a wonderful voice to boot. It's difficult to do sound for a largely empty room, though -- there were only about 20 people in the 200-seat theater on Saturday -- and the band largely drowned out Villecco during "My Big French Boyfriend" (Sarah mistakes Milton for a muscled, growling Frenchman named Toxie, a notion he doesn't disabuse her of) and "All Men are Freaks," causing both to sound muddled.
The show only has a five-person cast, with Ty Myatt (White Dude) and Rashad Burns (Black Dude) ably playing everyone from cops and bullies to girlfriends and babies.
The performance of the show, however, goes to Stenson, who plays Melvin's perpetually disappointed mother as well as the corrupt, scheming mayor with distinction and aplomb. During her show-stopping number "Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore" she effectively does a duet with herself as both characters, and it's one of the more impressive theatrical feats I've seen in a while. Stenson also uses her great, soul-style vocals effectively with Myatt during the Spanish-flavored "Evil Is Hot," when the mayor seduces a scientist to get the dirt on Toxie's weakness.
In general the show feels like it could've used more time in the oven, but the energy is fantastic and this is a musical that would benefit (even more than most) from a big crowd cheering on such lines as, "Love your brother/ Or I'll rip your face apart," as Toxie sings during show closer "A Brand New Day in New Jersey."
And while "The Toxic Avenger Musical" is plenty enjoyable as enviro-sploitive entertainment, let's be very real: Big business has gotten away with polluting the environment for decades, and a lot of us have given up on them ever facing serious consequences. Watching Toxie mete out graphic punishment to the societal bullies/polluters might be as good as it's going to get.
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or John.Staton@StarNewsOnline.com.
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