Lawrence Toppman

Actor’s Theatre opens with a roar with ‘Toxic Avenger’

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte opens its new season on Freedom Drive with “The Toxic Avenger,” starring Jeremy DeCarlos.
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte opens its new season on Freedom Drive with “The Toxic Avenger,” starring Jeremy DeCarlos. George Hendricks Photography

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte was literally beside itself with excitement Wednesday night.

Its new space at 2219 Freedom Drive, expected to be ready for the season-opening musical “The Toxic Avenger,” can’t yet meet city-county standards for admitting 200 people at a time. So folks coming to the show parked behind this future home and went next door to Center City Church & The Movement Center.

The deal holds for one production – ATC plans to be in 2219 for the rest of the season – and prevents the company from serving alcohol during “Toxic.” You shouldn’t need stimulants to appreciate a show that rocks out from the first satiric ode to New Jersey to the last uplifting hope for an unpolluted future.

Last Friday, the church kindly offered the space at no charge for the run of the show. That gave director Chip Decker three days to supervise the load-in of an adjusted set and redesign blocking. I was reminded of the off-off-Broadway shows I saw in the late 1970s, which often took place in church halls or basements. (Except this one was in a clean, well-lighted place.)

And “Toxic” depends so much on an atmosphere of happy chaos that you could never be sure the actors bumping into each other onstage (which happened once or twice) didn’t mean to collide.

Author-lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer-lyricist David Bryan riff off the four “Toxic Avenger” movies released by B-movie studio Troma Entertainment between 1984 and 2000 (especially the first).

Nerdy Melvin Ferd III (Jeremy DeCarlos) investigates toxic dumping in his hometown of Tromaville (exit 13B off the N.J. Turnpike) and finds the mayor responsible. Her henchman dump him into a vat of green slime; he emerges as Toxie, a mutant with superhuman strength who wins the love of the town’s blind librarian (Leslie Ann Giles).

Ryan Stamey and Matthew Blake Johnson do fine quick-change work to play a dozen smaller roles, and Lisa Hugo spends one remarkable scene switching back and forth between Toxie’s mom and the evil mayor. (She has an acidulous, rapid-fire duet as both a soprano and mezzo, a highlight.)

Giles retains a kind of dopey innocence while singing about her desire to become a tawdry celebrity, and DeCarlos moves amusingly from the pinch-voiced Melvin to the roaring, big-hearted Toxie. The authors mock the librarian ruthlessly – at one point, she stumbles among the crowd with a pistol, climbing over seats and bumping into audience members – but they retain a real affection for the crusading kid who becomes a melancholy monster.

They pack the show with apt references, from nods to New Jersey natives Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen to a “Phantom of the Opera” joke. Any authors literary enough to name a character “Edna Ferber” – after the Pulitzer-winning author of “So Big” and “Show Boat,” a woman now virtually forgotten – has my admiration.

P.S. Rumor has it that a Charlotte native collaborated on the idea for the Toxic Avenger. Pat Kaufman, who was Pat Swinney when she lived here, married Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman in 1974 and went on to become executive director of the New York State Governor's Office for Motion Picture and Television Development. (She even has a daughter named Charlotte.) If so, she’d be glad to see her home town take up this legend.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘The Toxic Avenger’

When: Oct. 27-28, Oct. 30, Nov. 2-6 and 9-12.

Where: Next door to Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, 2219 Freedom Drive. Park free on site.

Tickets: $27-50.

Details: atcharlotte.org or (704) 342-2251.

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