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Biography's Top Ten People ... , The Elephant Man: The Musical, and Tarnish

By New York City

During the first week of New York City's Fringe Festival, I caught three shows that can justifiably be grouped together in one review roundup if only because they all are musicals. But the similarities stop there.

Perhaps better defined as a revue than a musical, Biography's Top Ten People of the Millennium Sing Their Favorite Kurt Weill Songs presents a scenario in which famous figures from the 1900s get together for an evening of music and conversation. Those expected to attend are the folks included on a list recently put together by Biography (the ubiquitous A&E series) of the most influential people of the last thousand years. Only Einstein, Karl Marx, Copernicus, and Galileo show up; but this gives them an opportunity to discuss the other six and, of course, to sing their favorite Kurt Weill tunes. Why Weill? Why not? This premise is the height of randomness, but that is really the source of the show's humor.

Writer/director Alec Duffy has come up with a charming (if inscrutable) concept for Biography's Top Ten People..., and the show works superbly. On a video screen above the stage, a woman--an almost God-like presence--appears occasionally to introduce the people on the list or to give romantic advice to Karl Marx. (This is what I mean by "random.") At first, each of the four guests gets a chance to perform a Weill song as the others provide musical accompaniment. Galileo (Ching Gonzalez) delights in this because, it turns out, he had musical ambitions. Copernicus (the wonderful Tom Ford), on the other hand, barely gets a few bars into his song before he veers off into a bizarre monologue; he's a troubled fellow, but he does eventually offer a phenomenal rendition of "Surabaya Johnny."

Few writers would go to the trouble of getting these great minds together for the purpose of providing laughs; but this is exactly what Duffy does, and perhaps his approach works so well because it is so unexpected. He does make room for intellectual discussion, most of which is instigated by Copernicus and Marx as they question the validity of Biography's list, which also includes the likes of Shakespeare and Darwin. Copernicus wants to know exactly who found these people influential. White people, Europeans...capitalists, Marx points out. Given these musings, the choice to showcase the music of Kurt Weill was surely not an accident. But the show has a feeling of one big, happy accident--a peculiar, charming, and highly enjoyable one.

********************

To be fair, the tag line does warn us: "It's everything you're afraid it might be." The Elephant Man: The Musical is supposed to be an affectionate parody of the story of John Merrick, the medical curiosity remembered for screaming "I am not an animal!" Merrick was a sensitive, intelligent man turned into a sideshow freak because of his horrible physical deformity, then rescued by a doctor who made him the toast of society. Jeff Hylton and Tim Werenko, the writers of the musical Elephant Man, offer their own variation on this story, giving us a John Merrick who wants desperately to be a Broadway star.

The Elephant Man:  The Musical
The Elephant Man: The Musical
D.P. Duffy III, as Merrick, wears a silly hat with a koosh ball, a slinky, and a plunger attached to it in lieu of more evocative prosthetics. He's at the mercy of a shady carnie named Horace P. Augquatch (Jeff Hylton) until Dr. James Lipscomb comes by and decides to take Merrick in. Kenneth Dine is the creepy doctor who makes most of his living writing medical-themed romance novels but realizes that he could gain legitimate recognition by introducing Merrick to the medical community. His assistant, Jessica Curvey, is played by Jenna Morris, who may or may not be portraying multiple characters (it becomes impossible to tell). Eventually, she falls in love with Merrick. Meanwhile, Merrick keeps trying out for Broadway shows, singing songs like "Paleface Must Die" and not getting cast. But then the doctor meets the strange, greasy, and extremely fey Presby Raincoat (played by Hylton), a famous British producer who agrees to present a musical about Merrick, starring Merrick. The doctor pens the tuner himself and they call it Pakky Derm Superstar. It's a big hit, it wins awards, and I guess everything ends happily.

This show may well be the straw that broke the camel's back; I mean, we can only take so many musicals with preposterous premises and an endless barrage of musical theater references, right? But a larger problem with The Elephant Man: The Musical is that it just isn't funny, and is only barely coherent. There's no spark of originality here. It's almost as if the show had been written by a couple of high school freshmen. Though the authors might aspire to the type of humor exemplified by the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, their Elephant Man is vulgar without being witty, the humor is as stale as the worst TV sitcom, and the book is meandering and uninspired.

Duffy and Morris do the best they can with their characters, but there isn't much there for an audience to hold on to. Dine and Hylton pile caricature upon caricature to no comic effect. There are a few funny jokes, but most are puzzling or repulsive. And while the opening number is promising, the score immediately goes south from there as the show takes its first plot detour: The doctor tries to seduce his assistant, indicating his crotch relentlessly and imploring the woman not to be afraid of "Moby." The assistant then sings a "Glitter and Be Gay"-like aria called "Il Pepe Rivoltante," expressing her distaste for the doctor's member. Not quite as subtle or sophisticated as Benny Hill but, hey, they try.

The laughs keep coming--if not through dirty jokes, then by way of musical parodies (and there are plenty of those). The idea was to skewer the mega-musical while also paying homage to the art form of musical theater; but Forbidden Broadway did it all 10 years ago, from the Les Miz snippets to the borrowing of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." One highlight, though, is a song wherein the doctor and the producer sing (in verse) the title of virtually every musical ever written. They also sing a very, very long song during the rehearsal of "Pakky Derm" that is kind of catchy and features some bizarre but chuckle-inducing lines, e.g., "Show business is a lot like juggling orphans."

In the end, this show is sort of a lowbrow Bat Boy minus wit, charm, character, and a great score. I really wanted to like it, but I got the feeling the people on stage were enjoying themselves more than I was.

********************

The closest thing to a real, full-fledged musical of the batch reviewed here, Tarnish has a book, music, and lyrics by Scott Mebus. It is the story of Mary, a girl who was born under bad circumstances and, unhappy with her home life, runs away to the city at the age of 16. She meets a nice guy named Hollow--and plenty of strange characters, too--as she tries to find out who she is.

Tarnish starts out with the rather tight premise that something is wrong with Mary and that she is therefore not accepted by her parents or the town as a whole. Unfortunately, the show has to ride this premise through to its unilluminating, slightly irritating conclusion. But the bulk of the piece, concerning Mary's exploits in the city, is enjoyable. Though not much happens, the show works largely thanks to its appealing music and some magnetic performers.

Melanie Penn is Mary, and she has a quality that simultaneously makes her the girl-next-door and a bit of an outsider. Aaron Berk is the sweet, understanding Hollow, who takes Mary in as she's trying to find her way in the city. Tonya Doran as the "gangsta bitch" Smirk gives the show a lot of its heart and muscle. All of these performers seem to have fine singing voices but it was a little hard to tell for sure, given the sound problems the theater was having at the performance I attended. (Also unfortunate is the fact that the music was pre-recorded).

Mebus' script is inconsistent. Some of the characters fare well (like the ones mentioned above), but Mary's parents often seem ridiculous. So does the town preacher, who comes off as just another judgmental, religious stereotype. The dialogue is often surprisingly funny, if sometimes unintentionally so. A few scenes are unnecessary, such as a dance number about masks and another one featuring the strangest homeless people I've ever seen.

While his rock-influenced music is accessible and works well for the theater, Mebus could have expended more effort in finding the right moments to musicalize. Sometimes the characters break out into song for no apparent reason, with no emotional build-up whatsoever. Equally frustrating are the numbers that seem to go nowhere; rather than giving them a dramatic build that leads to some sort of conclusion or action, Mebus has a tendency to let songs wander and fade away. He's got a lot of talent, but he needs to work on his craft.

The show also suffers from being derivative. Tarnish is much like The Who's Tommy, with its damaged hero who flees home to face a harsh world; other cues, both musical and dramatic, point back to that source as well. And James Deforte's choreography sometimes appears to be straight out of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video or Paula Abdul's "Cold-Hearted Snake".

All the same, this show is worth catching for the promising talent on display. It's a heartfelt effort by Mebus, and the cast members put a lot of energy into their performances. Like its heroine, Tarnish is a musical that has not yet come into its own--but, with some more work, it just might do that.


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