Saturday, April 20, 2019

review - THE TOXIC AVENGER - Mesa Encore Theatre

Emily Kamps and Connor Wanless
photo courtesy Mesa Encore Theatre
by Carolyn Thomas

The Toxic Avenger has many elements that make the show a perfect black box production: it requires minimal set dressings, a small cast of five, and has loads of room for creativity. Mesa Encore Theatre's real strength lies in the cast, who bring to life dozens of colorful, memorable characters in laugh-out-loud over-the-top fashion. It's a fast-paced, campy romp with a heavy-handed message, but has no shortage of laughs.

Beginning as a film in 1984, The Toxic Avenger was much more openly gruesome and gory than its modern musical counterpart, which came to the scene in 2008. The musical, book written by Joe DiPietro and music by David Bryan, doesn't hold back on flying body parts, but relies less on the grotesque shock factor than the movie did.

The story opens on Tromaville, an unfortunate city filled with filth just off the New Jersey Turnpike, where we meet Melvin Ferd the Third, an aspiring Earth-scientist and his crush, Sarah, a blind librarian. He uncovers proof that Mayor Babs Belgoody is behind the recent influx of toxic waste in town, but the Mayor isn't above playing dirty to protect her secret. Though the plot is relatively predictable, the vibrant characters and quick pace keep The Toxic Avenger from going stale. Global warming and political inaction take the thematic spotlight, and for anyone who's ever felt frustrated with politicians in regards to fighting climate change, The Toxic Avenger, affectionately nicknamed Toxie, is a perfect conduit for that rage.

The characters are all uniquely flawed, but not in ways that leave much room for emotional connection with the audience. Toxie's emotional spiral feels more like a child's tantrum rather than genuine heartbreak, but I fault the writing rather than the cast for this shortcoming. Additionally, the secondary lesson that women should learn to accept all men as freaks is overdone and quite tired, but to the musical's credit, it does playfully allude to another popular play on this same trope. While the show is good for a laugh, it doesn't do much to challenge the audience.

Standouts Michael Thompson (Black Dude), Emily Kamps (Sarah), and Cassie Chilton (Mayor Babs Belgoody, Ma Ferd, & Nun) steal the show any time they're on stage, though there are no weak links in this cast. Thompson's versatility is undeniable as he tackles numerous characters of different races, ages, genders, and personalities, pulling off each switch with comic mastery that earns boisterous laughter. His physicality is admirable. He throws his body and soul into every bit with reckless abandon, and it's hard not to commend him for running and dancing in heels better than most women. Kamps plays only a single character, in contrast, but takes on the bright-eyed blind librarian with aplomb. Kamps' stellar vocals and hilarious physical comedy make Sarah the real star of the show. Chilton stops the show with an unforgettable cat fight midway through the production, though to say more would spoil the fun. Connor Wanless (Melvin Ferd the Third & The Toxic Avenger) takes on a vocally challenging role and perfectly embodies the vengeful nerd. Devon (White Dude) excells in bouncing from character to character along with Thompson.

Louis Farber's direction brings out some moments of hilarity that might otherwise have been missed, and truly compliments the actors involved. Allison Bauer and Jessica Tully's costume design succeeds, especially given the challenges of many quick changes. Tiana Torrilhon-Woods' scenic design is very functional and serves the space well, though it has little personality of its own. Kat Bailes' choreography elevates the production, with each dance number becoming a star in itself. Though no fight choreographer is credited, one is certainly needed. The fight scenes and particularly the clash leading to Melvin's fall into toxic waste could have sparked far more excitement than they did, but ultimately the fight scenes don't take away from the overall entertainment.

Mesa Encore Theatre ultimately delivers a funny, fun, and campy musical. If you have a taste for nerds getting revenge, don't mind making fun of handicapped people, and feel ready to embrace more than a little ridiculousness, The Toxic Avenger is a perfect pick. The Toxic Avenger runs April 5 - 21, 2019 at Mesa Arts Center.

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