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The Toxic Avenger: Pure Entertainment

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The setup:

Based on Lloyd Kaufman's 1984 cult-movie classic, the musical version of Toxic Avenger arrives at the Alley, revamped after a long Off-B'way run, and brings broad humor, compelling music and top-drawer acting with it.

The execution:

The story line in the musical follows the movie pretty faithfully, which will please its myriad of fans, but is a heads-up alert that this is pure fun entertainment, and not art-for-the-ages. Melvin, a do-gooder nerd, is portrayed by Constantine Maroulis, American Idol finalist and winner of a Tony nomination for his role in Rock of Ages. Maroulis captures both nerd-dom and the swagger of a mutant antihero as he very quickly gets dipped by goons into a drum of toxic waste, and emerges muscular, green and uglified.

But not to the point that we can't still identify with him and wish him every success in his new persona. Part of the humor is that it is still largely the old persona -- a nerd is forever. His big number is the poignant, well-staged and well-lit "You Tore My Heart Out," but he delivers vocally throughout. And physically as well, in a coup-de-theater choreographed fight (nay, dismembering) scene that is breathtakingly funny.

The love interest is blind librarian Sarah (Mara Davi) -- yes, she does have trouble getting books back on the shelf, and it is hilarious -- this is not a PC show. Sarah is eager for sex (a woman has needs), but the virginal Toxie never quite connects. Davi scores with her comic timing and gets to showcase her beauty and glam side when the eyeglasses come off, and she opens Act II in a white sequined mini-dress and the ebullient "Choose Me, Oprah."

The mayor who profits from using the mythical town of Tromaville, New Jersey, as a toxic waste dump has been changed to a woman, earning our eternal gratitude, for Nancy Opel nails the role, as she does that of Melvin's mother. She can be sexy or evil, conniving or zany; whatever is needed, she is there.

The two remaining actors are White Dude (Mitchell Jarvis) and Black Dude (Antoine L. Smith), and they portray a horde of characters with such energy, rich body language and command of their material that I was tempted to begin this review with them. They are stars themselves, not supporting actors, and it is a triumph that they and the three other actors loaded with talent can create such a rich and varied excursion into the carnival of life.

David Bryan composed the music and Joe DiPietro wrote the book, and they collaborated on the lyrics -- both won Tony awards for their work on Memphis. Overall cohesive brilliance is achieved by the direction of John Rando, original director of this Off-B'way hit and Tony winner for his direction of Urinetown. The choreography by Kelly Devine is exciting, the five-piece band does justice to the exuberant, driving score, and the turntable set permits the nonstop action to continue uninterrupted -- hey, they did everything right!

The verdict:

Brilliant acting, a compelling score and a humor-driven plot mesh into a wonderful panoply of rich, exciting entertainment. Don't miss it!

The Toxic Avenger continues through February 12 at the Patricia Peckinpaugh Hubbard Stage, Alley Theatre, 615 Texas St. For information or tickets, contact 713-220-5700 or www.alleytheatre.org.

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