One thing I love about Wilmington is its ample, diverse theatre scene. It provides a wide variety of shows for all types of audiences with quality and range. It’s great to live in a town that can support more traditional shows as well as something weird and wonderful like Panache Theatre’s “The Toxic Avenger Musical.”
For anyone unfamiliar with “The Toxic Avenger,” let’s have a quick primer: In 1984 famed cult-movie director Lloyd Kaufman launched “The Toxic Avenger” into the world. Like many of Kaufman’s films, it was brash, irreverent, crude, hilarious, and basted in bad taste. The story is of a nebbish nerd in New Jersey who is transformed into a mutant after being dumped into a vat of toxic waste. Instead of giving him terminal cancer, he is transformed into a horrific-looking monster with super strength, who vows to take down those responsible for turning New Jersey into a toxic dump.
There’s a number of cult movies that have made the successful transition into musical theater. John Waters’ “Hairspray” (1988), Daniel Waters and Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers” (1988)—which Panache did earlier in the year to rave reviews—Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers” (1967), and Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” (1981) are all movies that have been brought to the musical stage. “The Toxic Avenger” joins the joyous melange of musical mayhem brought to raucous life by local director Anthony Lawson. The show is the kind of over-the-top, go-for-broke production that channels the energy and devilish deviancy of classics like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
The Front Street Theater (formerly City Stage) is a perfect venue for the show, too. The garbage-clad industrial set stretches to all four corners of the proscenium. The floor-level stage gives the performers the ability to work the crowd and play, and get face-to-mutated face with the audience. The show benefits greatly from a more intimate space where the classic rock-inspired score can make the entire theater tremble.
Brendan Carter brings a lot of personality to the protagonist role of Melvin/Toxie. He performs most of it in a rubber mask and neon green bodysuit. He does a solid job but feels slightly inhibited compared to the other four manic performers who are given a far broader spectrum with which play.
Kire Stenson continues to be Wilmington’s most potent stick of dynamite. She chews through every scene with potency. She sings, shticks and dazzles as both Melvin’s meshuga mother and evil mayor. One of the show’s high points is a duet requiring Stenson to play both roles in a slew of costume changes and manic moments.
Katie Villecco plays Toxie’s blind librarian love interest, Sarah, She shows off her pipes and comic stylings, as both are finely tuned. Villecco feels like a classically trained performer scratching a rock-n-roll itch—like a hard-rock version of Kristen Bell who fully embraces the dark humor of a blind librarian and all the great laughs mined at the character’s expense.
If there’s an award for marathon performances, it would have to go to Ty Myatt and Rashad James, who play every other character in the show. It requires a maddening pace and more costume changes than an obsessive-compulsive stylist. Bullies, policemen, scientists, old ladies, bitchy best friends, hairstylists—they do it all! They’re an energetic ensemble of two bringing a lot of broad comedy to the stage, and sticking most of the landings.
“The Toxic Avenger Musical” greatly benefits from a talented, funny cast that takes a slightly above-average book and infuses it with life. It is a show that benefits from momentum; the jokes and songs come at audiences fast, never lingering too long on those talky, story bits. The story about the evils of pollution and corporate greed is as timely as ever. Then again, it also seems like an excuse to tell a story about a murderous mutant more than moral and environmental inspiration. The four-piece live band brings a raw sound to the proceedings. As a musical, “The Toxic Avenger” is pretty good. Thanks to a passionate cast, it becomes something more.