Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"The Toxic Avenger" - Super-Animated Cast a Match for Its Superhero Humor

Evan Ruggiero as Toxie and Katie Sexton as Sarah Credit: Matt Polk 

Back in May, when I caught a Pittsburgh CLO production of "39 Steps" at the Cabaret Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh, I described the show as "dazzlingly entertaining" and thought "it could hardly get better than this."

Well, surprise, surprise. After seeing "The Toxic Avenger," the latest CLO production at the Cabaret Theater, I raised my benchmark for high quality entertainment another notch. Not bad for a musical comedy that got its birth as a B-grade, non musical film with the same title made in 1984 by Lloyd Kaufman.

For those unfamiliar with the film, as am I, the plot centers around a mild-mannered geek named Melvin Ferd the Third who is transformed into a muscular killer after he'’ dumped into a vat of toxic radioactive waste by a pair of thugs. Melvin, a crusader of sorts advocating for a clean and green environment, himself turns green as well as hideously deformed after his mishap.

It seems his inquisitive nature got him into trouble when he discovered in the deep recesses of the Tromatown (read Traumatown) library that the town’s mayor was also the covert owner of the enterprise responsible for dumping toxic waste on the nearby New Jersey landscape  To shut him up, the mayor orders his quick dispatch by her ruffian henchmen.

Even before his transformation, Melvin develops a romantic attraction to Sarah, a town librarian who also happens to be blind. White cane in hand, Sarah is ambivalent about her feelings for Melvin - until his plunge into the toxic bath. Though Melvin may be hideous to behold with his bumpy green skin and left eyeball dangling along side his nose, Sarah is blind to his defects and is actually aroused by his more aggressive attitude.

More monster than super hero, Melvin as the Toxic Avenger might be great fodder for Halloween themed theatrics if it wasn’t for the comedy skills of its authors - Joe DiPietro and David Bryan of Bon Jovi fame. They’re the same duo responsible for "Memphis," which garnered Bryan Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Orchestration back in 2010.
In their capable hands, the horror and terror so sought after during the ghoul season at the end of October are supplanted by laughter, chortles and sniggering for a more light-hearted holiday experience.

The pieces for the Pittsburgh CLO production fit together with award-winning qualities of their own starting with the rambunctious cast of five headed by Evan Ruggiero as the title character. Transformed into a appallingly unattractive superhero, his Avenger has somehow retained his interests in environmental advocacy. But that’s putting it mildly because this once meek gent now savagely manhandles his opponents and antagonists with superhuman strength that literally tears them limb from limb, head from torso..

His murderous deeds are done in such as way by inspired stagecraft that, instead of inducing a sense of terrifying horror, the dismemberments come off . . . well, as ultra comic moments that both titillate and disgust.

Ruggiero is convincing both in his initial mild-mannered persona and as the reconstructed, toxified, machismo-driven hulk. However, despite his new-found physical empowerment, he still cowers in the presence of Sarah (Katie Sexton), a self-assured, soft-hearted, attractive though ditzy headed looker, scripted by the authors as a stereotypic blonde.

As one of the cast members says "she’d be Mother Theresa if she wasn’t blind and HOT."
Keep an eye out on Quinn Patrick Shannon as the White Dude and Billy Mason as the Black Dude. First seen as the burley thugs with deep voices and meaty physiques, they later take on a several multi-gender personalities that are nothing short of hilarious. Isn’t it amazing what a wig and a pair of pumps can do to turn the audience into a gaggle of giggling gawkers?

The two men often steal the scene with their high-energy camp, acting as though they were thrilled every moment they’re on stage, exuding so much charm and charisma in the process, you’d almost expect them to ignite spontaneously into flame.

And speaking of igniting, wait till you experience the entrance of Caroline Nicolian as mayor Babs Belgoody. She comes on like gangbusters belting out with Jennifer Holiday-like panache "Jersey Girl," a tune that makes you sit up and take notice.

Nicolian gives her Machiavellian mischief making a palpable credibility, but when she later portrays a second character, that of Melvin’s frail mother that reminded me of Granny in the old Silvester and Tweety Bird cartoons, she shows an unbelievable range of Thespian skills.

The musical score is a mix of mostly pleasant pop rock style tunes with a ballad or two mixed in for variety’s sake. One song naughtily titled "Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore" gives you the impression that you might not want to take impressionable preteens to this particular production.

One musical highlight of note is a Shannon solo done on guitar to a Bruce Springsteen melody retitled "The Legend of the Toxic Avenger." It brought down the house the evening of my visit despite the fact that it was done without backup from the three piece combo that accompanies the singers from a lofty dais in the middle of the stage.

Tony Ferrieri designed the industrial looking set, a rather bleak looking melange of wire fencing, metal barrels and corrugated sheets of metal that envelop the audience on two sides. Costuming appropriate to the story line is by David Woolard.

Wes Grantom’s direction was so right-on I wondered if he wasn’t also a veteran stand up comedian.
He got the pacing, timing and blocking down pat and, if he had anything to do with selecting the cast, he got that right too. Watch for some of his hilarious nuances you might miss if you’re not alert like the pair of copulating rats at stage right and what the blind Sarah offers Melvin as an additive to his tea.

At intermission I was exhausted by sheer exuberance, inventive creativity and boisterous mirth of it all and wondered how Act Two could possibly continue the comedic artistry after a fifteen minute cool down. But minutes into the second half the fun rekindles and the show plunges head long into a memorable moment of theatrical magic when Sexton, with the aid of Shannon and Mason, plays two roles simultaneously in a scene that gets progressively outrageous.

In Toxic, gruesome was never so toothsome.

The Toxic Avenger is at the Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Avenue, in downtown Pittsburgh through December 18. For tickets, phone 412-456-6666 or clocabaret.com.

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