Natalie Green as Sarah and Ellis C. Dawson III as the Toxic Avenger. PHOTO | Steve Wagner

Cain Park’s ‘Toxic Avenger’ goes from intoxicating to punch-drunk

By Bob Abelman

“The Toxic Avenger,” at Cain Park, is the love-child of “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

No, that’s not really how this offbeat, Off-Broadway rock musical came into being. But it’s so much easier to envision this kind of conception than the fact that such a conspicuously silly sci-fi farce was written by the same fellows — Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) and David Bryan (keyboardist for the rock band Bon Jovi) — who won a Tony Award for writing the comparatively straight-laced musical “Memphis.”

Based on the 1984 low-budgeted B-movie by Lloyd Kaufman, “The Toxic Avenger” features nerdy Melvin Ferd III (Ellis C. Dawson III), who is in love with the blind town librarian Sarah (Natalie Green) and is on a mission to clean up the nuclear waste in his hometown in New Jersey.

The corrupt mayor of the town (Kate Leigh Michalski), whose shady business deals are responsible for the toxic dump, attempts to foil Melvin’s plans by having her thugs (Codie Higer and Mariah Burks) dump him into a vat of toxic goo. He emerges as a deformed, radioactive mutant with superhuman strength, hell-bent on righting wrongs and breaking into song with little provocation.

DiPietro’s script is hilarious and uses every sci-fi genre trope, musical theater convention and New Jersey failing as its plaything. But what is delightfully outrageous and deliciously idiotic out of the gate becomes tedious as audiences grow accustomed and then numb to things sick, shocking and sarcastic. And while the running gags associated with Sarah’s blindness and actors playing multiple characters (including Malik Akil and Trey Gilpin as the all-purpose Black Dude and White Dude) are very funny at first, they elicit a gag reflex the fourth or fifth time around.

The same goes for David Bryan’s score, which wedges witty wordplay into generic musical theater genres that become indistinguishable over time despite a superb band under Jordan Cooper’s direction. Sound designer Richard B. Ingraham earns his keep balancing the contrasts in the songs’ volume and lyrical density as well as the ambient music flooding into the canvas-covered Alma Theater from the catty-corner concert venue in Cain Park.

During the somber Last Supper scene in last year’s production of “Godspell,” when Judas was betraying Jesus, you could hear Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ melancholic hit song “Sealed With A Kiss” being performed next door. Last week, during The Avenger’s tender ballad “You Tore My Heart Out,” the infiltration of Béla Fleck & The Flecktones’ funky jazz was less suitable.

Lighting designer Trad A Burns fights and wins his own battles with intruding outside light and the tough angles created by scenic designer Stephen Vasse-Hansell’s staging, which places much of the play’s action in the areas that border the rotating toxic dump that sits center stage.

Despite its creative and technical challenges, this production of “The Toxic Avenger” is a success. The reason is the seven exceptionally talented, fully committed, and unflinching performers who operate under Nathan Motta’s immensely playful direction and choreography.

Their flawless comic timing matches their vocal and dancing abilities and every performer exudes the charm sorely missing in the material. They wink and nod their way through the show’s foolishness, which at once acknowledges and fully embraces the lunacy they perform.

Dawson’s portrayal is particularly intriguing, for he manages to display remnants of Melvin’s geeky sweetness even after morphing — thanks to P.J. Toomey’s special effects and Tesia Dugan Benson’s comic book costuming — into a hideous green hulk.

Green finds the perfect balance between victim and vixen in her delightful portrayal of Sarah, while Michalski turns in a tour de force performance as the Mayor, Melvin’s mom and both simultaneously.

“The Toxic Avenger,” warts and all, is a welcome addition to the serious shows now playing in many of the surrounding theaters. And it is a welcome escape from all the real-world turmoil that sadly exists outside of them. CV

On stage

WHAT: “The Toxic Avenger”

WHERE: Cain Park, 14591 Superior Road, Cleveland Heights

WHEN: Through June 26

TICKETS & INFO: $28-$30, call 216-371-3000 or

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 12, 2016.

Lead image: Natalie Green as Sarah and Ellis C. Dawson III as the Toxic Avenger. PHOTO | Steve Wagner