The Toxic Avenger at Maverick Theater Isn’t Gross One Bit

Few people in attendance on a recent Sunday night at the Maverick Theater in Fullerton had been in the space before. But nearly all of them raised their hands or roared in the affirmative when the pre-show greeter asked them if they were familiar with the source of the play they were about to watch.

So, you had a theater filled to near capacity with a bunch of people, most of whom looked younger than 30, seeing a play in a space they’d never been in before, willing to wager their very existence by venturing to the other side of the train tracks in downtown Fullerton (the side where the bars ain’t located) to do so. And what towering achievement of American letters were they there to see? What urgent, compelling force tore them from their abodes on the night Game of Thrones premiered its sixth season?

Bon Jovi’s keyboardist.

Well, not exactly. In fact, most of those in attendance probably had no idea that David Bryan wrote the music and lyrics for the musical they were seeing. But he did. What they did know is that The Toxic Avenger is a musical adaptation of the low-budget 1984 film that didn’t make a dent at the box office but turned into a cult sensation after a long midnight run at a New York movie house and the proliferation of cable TV channels and VCRs.

And lots and lots of people smoking pot while watching it.

This is the first time the show, written by Bryan and Joe DiPietro, has been staged in Southern California, according to the Maverick. Though first produced in 2008, the intentionally silly musical (which actually contains an almost-sweet message of love conquering all, as well as some predictable armchair-liberal global-warming propaganda) of an intentionally bad film, allows for ample updating, so there are a slew of references in this Anthony Galleran-directed production to targets such as Donald Trump and Twitter.

But the bulk of the show centers on the same Melvin Ferd the Third (Enrique Munoz Jr.), a nerdy janitor and aspiring environmentalist living in the town of Tromaville, basically a toxic-waste dump off the New Jersey Turnpike. Melvin wants to uncover the truth behind the company dumping barrels of toxic waste (impressively arranged onstage by set designer Erik Furuheim), but he runs afoul of dastardly mayor Babs Belgoody (Dahna Lane) and a couple of her goons. Melvin takes an unintentional dip into a huge vat of the radioactive poison and is transformed into the Toxic Avenger, a grotesque freak with super-strength.

But he has two weaknesses: common household bleach and Sarah (a radiant Tara Pitt), a beautiful blind librarian. The rest of the show consists of Toxy, Sarah’s name for the exotic French lover she thinks she has fallen for, attempting to keep Sarah from touching his face and realizing what he truly is, as well as his battle to expose the corruption at the stinking center of Tromaville.

Firmly entrenched in the world of anti-musicals such as Urinetown, shows that are intentionally goofy and poke fun at the conventions of musical theater as they awkwardly embrace them, Toxic Avenger is a lot of fun, even if it sometimes feels rougher around the edges than it’s supposed to be. One of the conventions it hugs and chokes is that of quick-change artistry (characters bolting offstage, then suddenly reappearing as someone else). This is a very difficult thing to pull off, as it requires costume changes in a matter of seconds and frantic work by backstage crew members. For the most part, this production pulls it off (kudos to Korey Gene Mitchell and Steven Joseph Alcantar for their multiple roles, as well as the strangest duet you’ve ever witnessed courtesy of Lane), but there are times when you can feel particularly onerous changes happening, and that saps some of the energy out of a show that demands it the entire time.

Munoz is also difficult to hear at times; then again, he is forced to perform while wearing a burdensome and bizarre mask, created by producer Brian Newell. And the five-piece live band, while highly proficient, compounds that difficulty, especially if you’re sitting right beneath it. But the chutzpah of the five-member cast and its total commitment to a deliriously cheesy show evens out those rough patches. This is a total team effort, from the actors and the band to the unseen dressers (Chris Jones and Rob Downs).

Anyone who doesn’t think that theater demands a huge amount of hard work probably doesn’t know that Bon Jovi even had a keyboard player.0x000A

The Toxic Avenger at the Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through May 7. $15-$28.

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