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Theater review

Second Generation's 'Toxic Avenger': Grotesque, absurd and sensational

And now for something completely different.

I promise you: You have never seen anything like “The Toxic Avenger,” not from Second Generation Theatre at least. In their promotions for the comic book comedy, the show comes across as nerdy, sci-fi with a humorous twist. That’ll be cute, you might think. In director Doug Weyand’s hands, it’s all of that turned up to volume 11 — no, 12.

“The Toxic Avenger,” based on the 1984 B-movie by Lloyd Kaufman and Joe Ritter, is a high-camp romp in the black comedy vein. It’s pretty ridiculous, as per its genre. Like the film, Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s musical bears zero literary value or real-world integrity. It should be taken absolutely the opposite of seriously.

If you removed its ridiculous songs, which would be a mistake, the whole thing would play in about 90 seconds: In stinky New Jersey, where the water is toxic sludge and the air is putrid (and government corruption is to blame), a nerd named Melvin is poisoned (by government henchmen) and transformed into a gross monster-superhero, the Toxic Avenger, who saves the day and gets his girl, Sarah the Blind Librarian. It’s just absurd. Below absurd. Around the corner and downstairs from absurd. And it’s a freaking riot.

The show’s creators knew just what they were doing, in nailing their balancing act between cheesy, campy melodrama and gross-out, senseless shtick. We’ve seen this combination before in musical theater, though in much tamer, cuter – if just as darkly comedic – ways. If “Little Shop of Horrors” walked so “Urinetown” could run, “Urinetown” ran so “The Toxic Avenger” could go to space.

It must be said, though, that a big chunk of Sara’s humor, brought to precise life by Bethany Burrows in a star-making turn, is built around her being blind. Her differently abledness is a repeat punch line, and one that’s not likely to endear those with such sensitivities. In terms of comedy, where many (and I) agree that anything should be on the table, it’s just another gag.

In order for these matters to land, Weyand, who also choreographs, smartly treats the show’s silly premise and these inane characters with serious theatrical gloves. It takes a lot of work to make stupid look so easy.

Designer Chris Cavanagh, costume designer Lindsay Salamone and wig designer Mary McMahon also do great justice to this ridiculous genre. So does Allan Paglia's band, who played this classic-rock score with style and precision. Sound design in this space is often tough; the vocal mix on some of the cast's mics were not always easy to make out.

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Every one of the five-member ensemble gets their moment, and in those moments they shine bright.

Raphael A. Santos and newcomer Dylan Zalikowski are the most adrenalized general players I’ve ever seen. They can do everything, and deliciously, and breathlessly. Jenn Stafford, as the gutless, spineless mayor, is having a ball, and her side turns as various annoying old ladies are a riot; her raucous duet between them is headline-worthy.

Steve Copps, an everyman on Buffalo stages, is pitch-perfect as our kind-hearted, conflicted superhero. He plays the slime-ridden, eyeball-hanging, green grotesque monster Toxie (as he’s affectionately known) with the heart of an ordinary man. And watch out if you’re in the aisles; this boy can jump.

This is a departure for Second Generation, which in its six years has tackled modern classics and masterpieces from the likes of Tony Kushner, Stephen Sondheim, Neil LaBute and Adam Guettel. No green sludge in those gems. Their programming, led by artistic director Kelly Copps and executive director Kristin Bentley, has followed an expected path ostensibly tailored to draw younger audiences into the theater with proven hits and new-to-them hits.

This, by far, is their biggest artistic detour – and potential risk. Job well done.

Theater review

"The Toxic Avenger"

3.5 stars (out of four)

Through Nov. 10 at Second Generation Theatre at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 660 Main St. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $35-20. (Box office, 508-7480, sheas.org).

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