In perhaps Blank Canvas’ best production so far in its current season, the wildly funny and wholeheartedly campy Toxic Avenger has crawled out of the contaminated contents of B-movie bliss and onto Cleveland’s theatre scene.
Based on the Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz-helmed flick that rode the line between superhero parody and shoddy exploitation, this relatively new musical adaptation written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro has already received some acclaim for following the tone of the film while dialing every aspect of it to eleven.
The play takes some creative liberties from its source material as Melvin Furd the Third (Pat Miller), a scrawny foolhardy nerd, faces an uphill battle confronting the overwhelming pollution in his quiet New Jersey town against corrupt Mayor Babs Belgoody (Leslie Andrews). In an attempt to impress his crush Sarah (Madeline Krucek), a ditzy blind librarian, he gets ahold of the city records and threatens to expose the mayor. Dumped into toxic waste accidentally as a response for his brashness, he arises from the waste a new man. Or in this case, mutant, as the Toxic Avenger (Patrick Ciamacco), affectionately nicknamed ‘Toxie’ by Sarah and the town. The fight for a cleaner town then becomes a battle of wits, torn appendages, broken promises and deception.
The crew at Blank Canvas is aware of the zaniness of the script and follows it with vigor and an infectious energy. With its previous productions including adaptations of Debbie Does Dallas and a Texas Chainsaw Massacre musical, the theatre staff thrives when dealing with and bringing life to schlocky yet charming concepts, and Toxic Avenger is no exception. Director Molly Claassen has embraced the cheese of the source material and gives its audience something that manages to balance being cartoony, gory, hilarious and racy without being overtly offensive— save for those hailing from New Jersey. Apologies in advance.
Ciamacco portrays the titular Toxie as morally and physically conflicted, cocky and posturing as his alter ego while still meek when channeling Melvin, and that conflict translates very well. The prosthetics and makeup, while not on the level of the film or other stage adaptations, doesn’t hinder his performance or singing. Costume designer Jenniver Sparano has crafted a haunting yet functional outfit for our gruesome protagonist, and Ciamacco’s menacing bellows are complemented by some impressive voice alteration by sound designer Richard B. Ingraham.
Krucek possesses an incredible sense of comedic timing in her bumbling blind antics, as well as a wonderful singing voice in numbers like “My Big French Boyfriend,” and paired with Ciamacco in “Hot Toxic Love.”
A frequent Black Canvas player, Andrews plays Melvin’s mother as well as the aforementioned Mayor, and— without spoiling one of the high points of the show— let’s just say Andrews does an amazing job balancing these characters. She projects her voice in numbers like “Evil Is Hot” and “Jersey Girl” with an unabashed roar.
Miller works well as the precocious yet cartoonish dweeb in the same vein as a character like SpongeBob SquarePants, and is on stage long enough to not have his childish antics be outwardly abrasive.
The bit players of the production, plainly credited as ‘White Dude’ and ‘Black Dudette’ (Noah Hrbek and Sydney Smith, respectively), wear many hats as Sarah’s valley girl-esque friends, the town bullies, prostitutes, a folk singer and a redneck hunter pair, just to name a few. Both of them impress with their ability to quickly dive into each role with professional grace and lightning fast costume changes, and both provide some great backup vocals to the songs. They also supply many laughs with their exaggerated mannerisms.
The set— also designed by Ciamacco— makes the most of the venue, bridging steps amongst heaps of trash and recyclables along a junkyard backdrop overlooking a luminous Jersey skyline. The space utilizes the central drum of toxic waste as an additional stage entrance rather than a simple hole in the floor, which makes for some very cinematic moments, especially in Toxic Avenger’s reveal.
Speaking of, for those wearing dressy clothes to the show, be cautioned of the ‘splatter zone,’ which is in range of the various liquids spurting out of various props.
The liquids aren’t the only interactive part, as the show becomes quite collaborative with its audience, breaking the ever-elusive fourth wall for comedic effect at almost every turn. Save for jokes at the expense of Sarah’s blindness, the most memorable instances come from this self-awareness.
As far as structure is concerned, there are a lot of plates spinning in this script. Between Toxie’s misadventures, his mother’s apparent rivalry with the mayor, and Sarah’s lust for fame and fortune with her memoir, there are a lot of transitions that the crew at Blank Canvas try to make as seamlessly as possible, but there are some unavoidable and jarring tonal shifts throughout. Some are even addressed as jokes in the production.
Those looking for some left-of-the-dial laughs will find that missing out on this sidesplitting romp would be hazardous to their health. Almost as hazardous as polluting in front of ol’ Toxie if you prefer your arm to remain in your socket.
Through July 27 at the Blank Canvas Theatre (1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland), 440-941-0458, blankcanvastheatre.com.