The Toxic Avenger

Cover October 29, 2010

By Lenny Stoute

The Danforth isn’t a hipster ‘hood; it has a boho quotient and vivid nightlife but it’s mostly about families; both the freshly married and the Greek bedrock which gives the ‘hood its name. Both of these types could be seen looking quizzically at the Danforth Music Hall in recent months as the vintage soft-seater underwent a radical makeover.

Being that the makeover involved lurid lighting, Day-Glo transfers splattered across the sidewalk and drums of toxic waste, teetering on the edge of the marquee’s roof, it might have been hard for the locals to see the improvement. For sure, all were curious as to just what the souvlaki they were getting up to in there. And why’d they have to treat that fine old building so?

It all came out in the acid wash when the Off-Broadway hit musical Toxic Avenger had its opening preview Saturday, October 24 2009. The original Toxic Avenger was a 1948 B-Movie at a time when it was ok to revel in schlock and the shadow of the Atomic Bomb fell on culture works both highbrow and low. A little more than 60 years later and in another millennium, the Toxic Avenger is back and even more relevant than ever in the current planetary eco-crisis and a culture stuck on schlocky reality shows.

Toxic Avenger reels off the tale of Melvin Ferd the Third, a well-meaning nerd from a New Jersey town, with industrial blight. He’s warm for the form of Sarah, the blind librarian, who clues him into the "Good Earth Company", an evil corporation that’s polluting the town in collusion with its mayor who also happens to have a piece of the company’s evil action.

Melvin swings into activist mode but is no match for the mayor, who has the dude immersed in a vat of radioactive waste which does absolutely nothing for his complexion. It does however transform the nerd into the Toxic Avenger, who with supernatural strength rips into the polluters and starts taking their arguments apart. Ok, started taking them apart. Sarah still doesn’t know what the dude looks like, but takes a liking to "Toxie". True toxic love never runs smooth and before long the entire town and the mayor, armed with household bleach, the only thing that can kill the also bulletproof Avenger, is off to waste our hero.

In the showdown, the mayor kills Toxie but a glass of putrid water form the Don River (local content y’all) brings the mutant back to life , whereup  he thrashes all and sundry, marries Sarah and winds up as the Governor of a green-conscious cleaned up New Jersey.

It’s staging in Toronto at this particular time is a clever and cheeky move. By offering an alternative New Jersey to that of the Jersey Boys, Toxic Avenger neatly positions itself as a companion piece while piggybacking on the current interest in all things Jersey. With not a good word to say for the place, it’s a wicked send up of all things Jersey, from the outrageous beauty parlour queens to the spot on pseudo-Springsteen cameo.

The script is canny, sharp and content to make its social commentary a casual thing. As befitting a pop culture based piece, it proudly references pedigreed forebears like Rocky Horror Picture Show and the bombastic grandiose pop of Bat Out of Hell. The Beauty and The Beast subtext is a gimme; more subtle is the way the Toxic Avenger’s emergence from the bowels of the acid re-imagines the super hot babe coming out of the cake.

Similarly, the pit band hits all the right notes in a score penned by Bon Jovi keysman David Bryan with suitably theatrical arrangements to match. The four piece have the slick confidence of seasoned pros as they slip between subgenres of pop rock, banging out the metal with mall rat swagger, going gleefully over the top on the ballads and ending up just this side of Disney parody.

Despite all the mayhem and body parts littering the stage, the production manages to convey a good-hearted vibe and the cast’s exuberance makes the occasional over-acting way forgivable. Likewise, the odd sound miscue and half-done costume changes were taken in stride by an audience that was with them all the way. The apocalyptic set of rising metal drums coupled with savvy lighting gave a basic set a rusted out post apocalyptic authenticity.

The cast headed up by Evan Alexander Smith (Toxie) and Brittany Gray (Sarah), had the daunting task of living up to the heavy hitter rep and the hometown crew didn’t back off from the task. Smith as Toxic is conflicted and reluctant about his superhuman strength. When he’s not tearing folk literally limb from limb, he’s pursuing Sarah in his conflicted way, desperate for her love but reluctant to tell her about his messed up physical condition, especially the left eyeball hanging by gelatinous tendons from the socket on his cheekbone, a running gag. All this inner conflict makes for a subtle role in a landscape primed to erase subtleties and Smith has his hands full pulling awfulness and endearing together.

Good as the ensemble was, this night belonged to the leading ladies, Brittany Gray and Louise Pitrie. Gray as Sarah layers the part with a winning mix of comic vulnerability and corn fed raunch, informing a character that’s about way more than bumping into things while doing amazing work in promoting the sexuality of the visually impaired. Gray’s an electrifying performer and owns the stage every time she takes its centre, always putting just that little extra shimmy into every shake of every dance routine.

All girl next door wholesome allure with a pleasant and nuanced singing voice, Gray’s the star coming out of the box. In more ways than one, since Sarah’s thing for prancing around in short t-shirts kept a hot little peep show going that had more than one guy craning round his date's head to catch a better look.

As the crooked mayor, Pitrie goes the other way, playing the role to the clicked hilt, sex, booze and bribes to the max. Gleefully dumping mucho experiences playing more dimensional parts, she leaps headfirst into a reckless, shallow character, propelling the clichés to the next, satiric level, letting nothing get in the way of a gloriously take no prisoners performance.  Her killer number “”Bitch, Slut, Liar, Whore” features Pitrie in a double role with both characters onstage at the same time. It'd be leaking too much to say how it’s done, but there’s no CGI involved and at the set piece’s conclusion the sold out house erupted into appreciative applause. This was repeated as the show careened to its crazed, slapstick cautionary ending, dropping in a coda showing Toxie channeling Bill Clinton as the nation’s new eco-President and Sarah its bestest author ever.

It took three curtain calls but finally, the rarely seen happened as a hipster-heavy T.Dot audience gave up a well-deserved standing ovation for the Toxic Avenger.