"If a blind girl won't love ugly people, who will?" That's the central dilemma in Toxic Avenger, the eye-popping, knee-slapping, sci-fi musical comedy getting its Broadway tryout right now at Houston's Alley Theatre.
If the ugly person in question is "Toxie," the avenging alter ego of mild-mannered nerd Melvin Ferd the Third, we're happy to be smitten. Playing the character at the Alley is Constantine Maroulis, the fern-haired American Idol finalist-turned-Broadway-leading-man, who went from a three-year run (and Tony nomination) in the Broadway hit Rock of Ages right into the title role in Toxic Avenger. (Dallas audiences saw him in the national tour of Rock at the Winspear Opera House last year.)
Maroulis gets to rattle the walls with his rock-singer wail in the new show, but he's just as good at rolling with broad comedy, which he wisely underplays. For most of Toxic Avenger, he's nearly unrecognizable, camouflaged beneath padded super-hero muscles and a mask that turns his head into a fat green cauliflower (with one eye drooping onto his left cheek). Still, Maroulis' Toxie is a charming and cute romantic lead. Kind of Phantom of the Opera meets Shrek.
Toxic Avenger continues through February 12 at the Alley Theatre, Houston. Call 713-220-5700.
But will Broadway audiences love a funny-dumb musical about a sweet-ugly guy? Commercial mainstream hits in that genre, like Little Shop of Horrors and Shrek, seem to be what the creators of Toxic Avenger, the same team that won four Tonys for the musical Memphis, are going for. Judging by the large numbers of squeal-y kids and teens in the audience at the 800-seat Alley the night I saw Toxic, the show's appeal is tilting heavily toward the younger Shrek crowd, and that's exactly what Broadway's looking for right now.
Except for characters and a few plot basics, this Toxic Avenger has little in common with its source, the 1984 Troma Entertainment sci-fi schlock flick by Lloyd Kaufman. Onstage, the disembowelings and explosions are intentionally un-yucky. When Toxie pulls out a bad guy's intestines, he jump-ropes with them à la Rocky in training.
The story is a meet-cute formula with a twist. Guy meets girl, guy gets dumped in vat of toxic sludge, guy returns as avenging monster and meets girl again. She likes him better the second time, regardless of stench.
Maroulis starts out as shy, geeky Melvin, whose crush object is Sarah, the blind librarian (played by deliciously sexy Mara Davi) in Tromaville, New Jersey. On a visit to the stacks, Melvin discovers official papers stashed by the evil lady mayor (Nancy Opel, who doubles as Melvin's harpy of a mother). The mayor is selling off city land as a chemical waste dump and profiting from it. When Melvin turns whistle-blower, he's beaten by thugs and tossed into a tub of goo. He emerges as our hero, stronger but uglier.
"When your face looks decayed, it's hard to get laid," sings Melvin/Toxie, who passes himself off as French on his first real date with pretty, stumble-prone Sarah. She responds with the ballad "My Big French Boyfriend."
The musical's script by Joe DiPietro, revised since a nine-month Off-Broadway run in 2009, is plot-light, with some glancing blows at corporate polluters and corrupt politicians. Many laughs are generated by jokes on current pop culture, including clever digs at Glee, Starbucks and Michele Bachmann. The score by David Bryan (of Bon Jovi fame) is a tasty blend of pop, rock, outsized showpieces and, just for fun, a tango.
In tone and sound, Toxic Avenger stacks up favorably against other musicals spun off from low-budget movies. You can hear some of the throbby chords of Rocky Horror in a few numbers. The blood-spewing gore and vines winding around the set will remind you of Little Shop. (Toxie is like the man-eating plant, but with a bigger package and better intentions.) Director John Rando won a Tony for Urinetown the Musical and there are hints of that, too, in Toxic's winky self-awareness.
Those shows, however, feel like chamber musicals compared with the size of the one spread across the wide Hubbard stage at the Alley. Even with just five actors playing all the characters and five musicians in the elevated pit, Toxic Avenger sometimes feels as grand as opera on its mountains of scenery by Beowulf Boritt (a designer used often at Dallas Theater Center by artistic director Kevin Moriarty). Beneath the revolving towers of glowing green chemical drums all over the stage lurk many rooms. Toxie and his pals are on a constant gallop from this level to that for the two-hour-and-15-minute performance. The brisk pace of the action slows down only when they stop to sing.
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Houston is certainly the right place to work on a piece about toxic sludge. You could change all the jokes about the bad air in New Jersey to references to Houston and they'd be just as funny. But they're going for that Broadway crowd, and if you're a hardcore fan of musicals like this one, there are good reasons to hold your breath and drive down to catch this show before it moves back east (and to Broadway's absurdly high ticket prices) this spring.
This is the cast that director Rando and choreographer Kelly Devine (who worked on Rock of Ages) will take to New York. They're all terrif, especially Maroulis and Opel. As much as he underplays every line, she counters with high volume and gigantic gestures. Opel is a loud Kaye Ballard-style comedy broad who bites off every word with an exclamation point. In Toxic's most gasp-inducing bit, Opel duets with herself as the mayor and Melvin's mama, jumping in and out of costumes and wigs behind a flimsy curtain, changing voices and postures when she reappears, then finally doing it all in full view of the audience. Brilliant.
Playing dozens of characters, from bullies to beehived back-up singers, are Antoine L. Smith and Mitchell Jarvis. Their dressers aren't credited in the program, but big claps to what must be a small army backstage slapping different wigs, shoes and others bits and boobs on these guys every few seconds. Jarvis gets his funniest turn as a Springsteen-like rocker singing "The Legend of the Toxic Avenger." Smith is a stitch as a granny wielding a mean cane.
High art, it ain't. Not with songs titled "Kick Your Ass" and "All Men Are Freaks." But big fun, it is. Just the kind of goofy romp everyone thought Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark would be and isn't. Toxic Avenger, if they handle it right, could be the next great comic book musical to hit the Great White Way and generate plenty of green.