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Tusk: A Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Can't get enough elephant cruelty musicals? Then run, don't walk, to see Tusk at the 47th Street Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. If, however, you've grown weary of the genre - or just underwritten, family-oriented, social-consciousness musicals, of which this is certainly one - pack your trunk and head in the other direction.

No number of power-belting pachyderms can save this show, which is about as well-intentioned as they come with regards to its story about the treatment of elephants, but is otherwise thoroughly misguided. Perhaps this can be attributed to the "too many cooks" syndrome, with three authors credited for each of the book (Steven Billing, Norman Rea, and Steven Yuhasz), the lyrics (Rea, Billing, and Bryon Sommers), and the music (Sommers, David Salih, and Craig Strang). While they all have, against the odds, managed to give the show a consistent sound and tone, they haven't made it dramatically viable.

The setup finds a small clan of six elephants captured by William Longfellow Pierce (played by Charles Bergell), who tortures them and eventually forces them to star in a circus. The elephants must cope with the pain and humiliation of captivity while maintaining their own unity and sense of identity, but their only ally is Pierce's beleaguered wife Jennifer (Sandra Bargman), who rebels against their torture when they cannot.

If you're thinking that this sounds like barely enough story for a two-hour musical, you're right. There's a fair amount of filler, much of it related to the anthropomorphization of the elephants; this gambit, apparently intended to bring more humanity to the story, instead renders the proceedings shallower and less important than they might otherwise seem. Two of the elephants (played by Marnie Baumer and Billy Wheelan) are young and in love, the youngest boy (P.J. Verhoest) must be taught to think about others before himself, and so on.

No one is ever able to completely work beyond this problem, which reduces much of the show to sitcom-level banality. Director Yuhasz devises a few potentially interesting ideas that might bring more theatricality to the presentation - such as having four ensemble members play "shadows" and comment on the action through song and dance, or using shadow puppets (designed by Dallas McCurley) to represent the elephants - but these are never utilized to their fullest. This mish-mash of half-realized concepts prevents Tusk from having the one thing it really needs: style.

Only Herrick Goldman's rain forest-inspired lighting plot even suggests it; it's not at all provided by the writing. The book relies heavily on trite situations and platitudinous dialogue - "I'm beginning to fear living more than dying" is a typical example. The score is far from unattractive, but it's often only barely integrated into the story: Wheelan sings more often after his death than before, and Baumer and Bargman join forces for two high-belting duets that seem to exist only to give the audience a bit of visceral vocal excitement. The song's titles - "Lovin' You From The Hate Within" and "Leave The Past Behind" - all but announce how little drama will likely interfere with the actresses' vocalizing. (The musical direction is provided by Seth Weinstein, who also leads the four-piece band.)

The performers tackle it all gamely, Bargman and Baumer leading the way and, yes, providing some genuine musical thrills. Ashley Arnold is adorable as the youngest elephant child, though Verhoest tends to overact and push too hard as her older brother. (The big second-act number they share, "What Would I Do," pulls them too far out of their comfortable singing ranges, and the result was not pretty at the performance I attended.) Bergell sings beautifully, but can't make his one-dimensional character interesting; Chris Vasquez and Heidi Stallings make fine elephant parents.

But as good as many of the actors are, without fresh, invigorating material and a clever spin on staging it, this subject matter doesn't easily come to life. Even the show's major thematic statement, the Shadows' big number "Everything Comes Around," seems to cover the familiar ground of The Lion King's "Circle of Life." No one can quibble with this show's well-meaning nature, but there's a considerable distance between good and good for you, and it's one that Tusk does not successfully traverse.

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New York Musical Theatre Festival
Tusk: A Musical
Through September 30
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
47th Street Theatre, 304 West 47th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101