Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Toxic Avenger
Phoenix Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of To Kill a Mockingbird, Sondheim on Sondheim, The Haunted, and The Merry Wives of Windsor


Caleb Reese
Photo by Erin Evangeline / Phoenix Theatre
Before they won Tony Awards for the hit Broadway musical Memphis, David Bryan and Joe DiPietro were spending time in the toxic dumps of New Jersey bringing the cult sci-fi/horror classic comedy film The Toxic Avenger to musical life. The silly, offbeat musical is having its Arizona premiere in a hilarious, exceptionally cast, and all around superb production from Phoenix Theatre.

Based on the 1984 B-movie from Troma Pictures, The Toxic Avenger is the story of nerdy Melvin Ferd the Third, who is in love with the blind town librarian Sarah and who is on a mission to clean up the nuclear waste in his hometown of Tromaville, New Jersey. However, the corrupt Mayor of the town, who is behind the toxic dump, foils his plans when her thugs dump him into a vat of toxic waste. But getting dipped in the nuclear vat doesn't kill Melvin; instead, he is turned into The Toxic Avenger, aka "Toxie," a radioactive monster with superhuman powers. Bryan's rock score features upbeat, varied musical numbers with clever and very witty lyrics by Bryan and DiPietro, and DiPietro's smart book is fast paced and funny. The end result of their adaptation is a comical cross between a sweet love story and the absurd tale of a mutant freak who is just trying to save his home state.

The small, hardworking cast of five are exceptional in their refined comic skills and all have strong vocal abilities. Caleb Reese exudes sweetness and charm, with an earthy voice that's full of fire as Melvin/Toxie. As the librarian Sarah, Trisha Ditsworth is ditzy, caring, smart and sexy, sometimes all at the same time, with a voice that soars to the rafters of the Hormel Theatre. Together, Reese and Ditsworth make an entertaining couple and their several humorous romantic duets are performed with charm and sincerity.

As both the Mayor and Melvin's mom, Johanna Carlisle is a firecracker, full of menace and power. The duet the two characters have together is a tour de force, with Carlisle having a blast and not missing a beat throughout the challenging song. Rounding out the cast are probably the two hardest working actors in town right now, Nathaniel Tenenbaum and Lucas Coatney, who play around a dozen characters each, and play them all to the hilarious hilt. Their quick changes from one role to the next are fast and furious and both are exceptional in their abilities to make each role unique.

Director Michael Barnard doesn't miss a beat in achieving performances from his cast that are funny but never too broad, while always letting the sweet heart of the story beat strongly. The creative elements are superb and feature the contributions of several of the original 2009 Off-Broadway creative team from their designs for the 2012 Alley Theatre production in Houston, including Beowulf Boritt's smart and inventive set design, David C. Woolard's fun and colorful costumes, and the Toxie mask design and prosthetics by Louis Zakarian. Complementing the Off-Broadway creative team are Robert Kolby Harper's comical choreography, exceptional lighting from Michael Eddy, Terre Stead's amusing wig and makeup designs, and a rocking band expertly led by Jeff Kennedy.

With so many of the same musicals being produced year after year throughout Phoenix, it's nice that Phoenix Theatre is presenting the Arizona premiere of an offbeat musical like The Toxic Avenger. While it may not be a familiar title it has charm and non-stop hilarity. With exceptional creative elements, confident direction, and a cast that is having such a blast that their fun washes over into the audience, you can't help but leave Phoenix Theatre's production of The Toxic Avenger with a big smile on your face.

The Toxic Avenger runs through November 22nd, 2015, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling 602-254-2151.

Music and Lyrics by David Bryan
Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Based on the Troma film written by Lloyd Kaufman and Joe Ritter
Director: Michael Barnard
Fight Choreographer / Assistant Director: Pasha Yamotahari
Choreographer: Robert Kolby Harper
Stage Manager: Michelle Elias*
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: David C. Woolard
Mask Design and Prosthetics: Louis Zakarian
Musical Director: Jeff Kennedy
Lighting Designer: Mike Eddy
Sound Designer: Almir Lejlic

Cast:
Caleb Reese*: Toxie
Johanna Carlisle*: Mayor/Mother
Nathaniel Tenenbaum: Ethnic Dude
Trisha Ditsworth: Sarah
Lucas Coatney: White Dude

*Members of Actors' Equity Association

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix


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