The Arizona-based actor is the fresh new face of The Toxic Avenger, the hilarious musical comedy playing this summer at the Hippodrome Theatre. And in case you are wondering, the Gish name is not new to show business.
By day, James D. Gish blends in well with other college students in Gainesville, lugging a backpack around town, working out at the gym and doing, you know, normal stuff. No one he passes on the street would ever suspect that by night, the tall, handsome 20-year-old transforms into a mutant superhero.
And, yet, that has pretty much been Gish’s daily routine since taking over the title role in The Toxic Avenger, the musical comedy onstage this summer at the Hippodrome Theatre in downtown Gainesville.
“I’m having a blast!” Gish said with an All-American Boyish grin. “I love playing Toxie.”
Who wouldn’t? Except for that left eyeball dangling off his cheek and a guttural roar now and then, playing the Toxic Avenger is a sweet gig for a young actor making his professional stage debut. It’s also Gish’s very first theater job outside his home state of Arizona.
How the young man from Bullhead City (pop. 39,364) ended up on the professional stage in Gainesville in the summer of ’16 borders on the improbable.
The Arizona State University student, majoring in business management, only started taking theater seriously early last year after arriving in Phoenix for school. The Phoenix Theatre had auditions for The Toxic Avenger and Gish gave it his best shot. He landed a role, but only as the Toxic Avenger’s understudy.
“I fell in love with the show the second it started, and it kind of broke my heart that I was never able to perform in it,” Gish said.
When that show closed last fall, Gish concluded that he would never get to perform the role in front of an audience, at least for several more years.
However, about a month ago, Gish was contacted out of the blue by Nathaniel Tenenbaum, the actor who plays Black Dude in the Hippodrome’s production of The Toxic Avenger. By coincidence, Tenenbaum had played the same role in the Phoenix Theatre production last year.
“Nathaniel and I actually became very good friends during that production,” Gish said. “He knew that I wanted to someday get a chance to play the role. When he found out that the Hippodrome was seeking a new Toxie, he reached out to me.”
Hippodrome Artistic Director Lauren Warhol Caldwell, also the director of The Toxic Avenger, was relieved when Gish auditioned for the part.
“We were just lucky that the recommendation [by Tenenbaum] was supported by his wonderful audition,” she said.
Dave Schoonover had played the role of Melvin Ferd the Third and Toxie during the Hipp’s initial four-week run of The Toxic Avenger, but the New York-based actor had another obligation when the show was held over through July 17.
Gish arrived in Gainesville three weeks ago and, like a typical college student, started cramming for the role he already knew.
“James came in ready to work,” Caldwell said. “Our first meeting was just a pleasant chat about the show and the character of Toxie, but he instantly gave off a vibe as as actor who wanted to do justice to the story that we had built without any baggage left over from previous production. However, we did benefit from him already knowing the story and the music so that did come in handy while we were rehearsing.”
Gish had 10 days to prepare for the role. He saw the show performed 12 times but also had three full days of rehearsals.
“It went quick, but I was lucky I got as much in as I did,” he said.
When his opening night arrived, Gish was ready to dazzle the audience and his fellow cast. Except things didn’t go quite as well as he had hoped.
“I thought going in that I was going to be as cool as a cucumber,” he said. “I wasn’t nervous per se until I made my first mistake in the opening number. I started singing four beats early in a duet with the nun [played by Kelly Atkins]. I started, stopped and restarted again.”
Then the opening-night jitters continued.
“After that, I got nervous and ended up dropping a whole lyric, a whole line in a solo about 10 minutes later. I’m still beating myself up about that,” Gish said. “I think I just psyched myself out after I made that first mistake.”
Since then, the young actor has earned the respect of his fellow cast members and his director.
“He has done a tremendous job in honoring our production along with adding some of his own choices inside the character,” Caldwell said. “After the first rehearsal, I trusted him completely.”
Atkins, a Hippodrome veteran who juggles two main roles in The Toxic Avenger, admitted that she had reservations about a “kid” taking over for Schoonover, a polished Equity Actor twice his age.
“What level of professionalism would a 20-year-old bring and what could we expect endurance- and consistency-wise for eight shows a week?” Atkins said. “It’s a very big, highly demanding role — physically, vocally and emotionally.”
And what’s the verdict?
“He has greatly exceeded any expectations I could have had about a ‘kid’ taking over the role. He is really fantastic in it!”
When asked how the new guy fits in, Atkins responded, “Like a dream.”
She added, “James brings a really fresh energy, great timing and gorgeous vocals — and he’s adorable to boot!”
Fellow cast member Jordan Silver, who plays White Dude, concurred.
“James brings a quick-witted, goofy character to his role of Toxie, which is fresh and innovative every night,” Silver said. “I couldn’t believe how well he knew the show jumping into it because I only rehearsed once with him before his first show.”
The costume department made only a few minor adjustments to the wardrobe worn by Schoonover before Gish could go onstage.
“He’s an inch and a half taller than me, but the shoes and everything else fit,” Gish said. “I think my head is a little smaller, so I had to ask them to tighten Toxie’s headpiece.”
During one song-and-dance number called “Hot Toxic Love,” the blind librarian Sarah (played by Maria Kerrigan) does a caveman-like walk before grabbing Toxie’s waist from behind, to be dragged along the stage.
“It doesn’t work with me like it worked with Dave,” Gish said. “She sort of falls off me when we do the number. We’re like ‘Why does she fall off me?’ We realized it’s because I have no [butt]!”
Although a relative newcomer to the stage, Gish has some notable acting pedigree. A great great great aunt is the late actress Lillian Gish, who began performing in silent films more than a century ago and who continued acting until 1987. The Academy Award nominee died in 1993 at age 99.
“She was an iconic actress,” he said. “She was one of the very first famous actresses because she worked for 60 or 70 years and did silent films and talkies. She had a sister Dorothy who was an actress but not as famous.”
James Gish said Lillian Gish often attended family reunions, but before his time.
“I never got to meet her,” he said. “She passed away before I was born. But my grandfather knew her well and told us stories about her.”
The younger Gish has his own heroes in his life, beginning with his parents, Jim and Tina, back in Bullhead City.
“They are my greatest fans,” he said, adding that he is the youngest of three children. He has a sister, Erica, and a brother, John.
“They were all extremely happy for me because they knew that on top of this being a great opportunity for me and a career starter, they knew how much it meant for me to get the opportunity to play the role I had put so much work into and never got to play.”
Gish also gives props to his high school teachers who continue to follow his budding acting career. They include Jen Rhue, or “Feebs,” his speech and debate coach.
As a student at Mohave High School, Gish performed onstage as Beast in Beauty & the Beast his sophomore year, as Emile de Becque in South Pacific his junior year and as Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera his senior year.
Meanwhile, his talent caught the attention of Sandy McGuire and Julie Hassett of the Colorado River Concert Association based in Bullhead City.
“They bring all kinds of musical artists and performers from around the country and world to Bullhead City,” Gish said.
One year, their organization brought actor Franc D’Ambrosio to town. He is best known for his longstanding role on Broadway as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. (He also played the adult Anthony Vito Corleone in the movie The Godfather Part III.)
“They set up a workshop for me to work with him for a day,” Gish said. “I was 17 and that was the day I decided I wanted to do this as a career.”
These days, Gish’s gratitude is directed toward Hippodrome artistic director Lauren Warhol Caldwell for giving him the opportunity to perform in The Toxic Avenger.
“When Nathaniel first called me and said, ‘Hey, you should really go for this,’ I kind of took it with a grain of salt,” he said. “I kind of wanted to laugh because I was like, ‘Nathaniel, they’re not going to hire me. I’m 20 years old and I have little experience and they don’t know me.’”
But Caldwell took the chance.
“I knew that she was trusting me with this and went out on a limb hiring someone new,” Gish said. “I didn’t want to disappoint her because she was extremely welcoming and fantastic to work with.
“She’s a genius when it come to theater direction. I could tell from the second we met for the first time in her office that I could learn a lot from her.”
Gish plans to graduate from Arizona State next May with a business degree he never intends to use. An acting career would suit him just fine.
“As of right now, I have my eyes on stage acting because that is where my experience is and I know how much I love it,” he said. “I would also like to experiment with film and see if I could enjoy it just as much.”
It’s possible that Gainesville audiences will see more of Gish.
“I can see James as a long-term relationship with the Hippodrome,” Caldwell said. “I would welcome him back in a heartbeat.”
Here are some open-ended questions we asked James to answer:
My favorite superhero is: I hate superheroes! I love well-written science fiction. I do a lot of creative writing in my own time and I think superheroes are a lot of cheap money grabbers. If I had to pick a favorite superhero, it would be Batman.
If I could have one superpower, I’d want to fly. That would be pretty cool.
I can relate to Melvin Ferd the Third because I am Melvin Ferd the Third! I’m such a nerd and I am proud of it! A lot of people have said, “I love your Melvin. I love how you’re doing your Melvin. You really seem to understand that character.” I just chuckle to myself and say, “You have no idea. …” I am a bookworm. Absolutely.
My favorite Toxic Avenger scene is when I come out of the vat and start ripping off people’s arms. That’s a fun scene. Not a lot of people can say they got paid to rip off arms eight times a week!
If I wasn’t an actor, I’d be a writer. In fact I’m pursuing both at the same time. I’ve written two science-fiction novels. I haven’t tried to publish them yet. That’s the next step, to seek out publishers and perusing publishers’ wish lists and start submitting. That’s a goal for this summer I’ve set for myself.
When I’m not onstage, my favorites activities include writing, going to the gym and playing golf.
I get my singing voice from my grandfather Fey.
The best way to handle a bully is … I’ve never been bullied, but I would say the Toxie thing to say would be to rip their heads off, but that’s normally frowned upon.
My absolute dream job would be to play Phantom on Broadway.
— Noel Leroux
The Toxic Avenger has eight shows each week at the Hippodrome Theatre, 25 SE 2nd Place. Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
For ticket info, visit the Hippodrome website or call 352.375.4477.
If you see the performance, please let us know what you think by posting a comment below.