No, Elephents is not a musical; it’s a soap opera with song.
In an interview I did with writer Jeffrey Jay Fowler (JJF) and Georgia King earlier this year about their Fringe show Second Hands, Fowler mentioned to me that his next project was going to be a musical. A musical?! I was both excited and trepidatious to see what JJF would do with the genre. He didn’t strike me as your typical musical theatre person — not even once during our conversation did he break out in song.
But it turns out that he wasn’t really writing a musical after all. According to the show’s description, Elephents is a “surreal soap opera with songs where people find the power to sing all the things they desperately want to say”. Well, okay. So, what? A play with songs isn’t always a musical. Case in point, last year’s final Black Swan production, Midsummer (A Play With Songs). That could hardly be classified as a musical, but there were songs, however superfluous they might have been.
Elephents takes place in a dystopian world on the brink of disaster, where only four elephants are left on a scorching earth that gets pelted with acid rain to the point that humans are required to walk around with lead-lined umbrellas. But this is only incidental. The plot unfolds when the show’s zookeeper character’s (Gita Bezard) favourite elephant Caribou dies after its enclosure’s refrigerator goes kaput. From there relationships are put into question, people have affairs, break up, and get back together. Hence why it’s called a soap opera. The “surreal” bit is, I suppose, a reference to its milieu and tone.
The characters don’t so much break out in song as ambulate into melancholic melodies that reflect their state of mind. The exceptions are a clunky punk number sung by Adriane Daff, and some cute little pop ditties written by the show’s songwriter character, Roger (JJF). The tunes aren’t particularly memorable, you probably won’t walk away humming them as you make your way to your car afterwards, but they do demonstrate the characters’ inner thoughts and for the most part they fit in nicely with the action, meaning they don’t generally get in the way.
The real pleasure of watching this show comes from its off-center characters and their bizarre but familiar dialogue. They’re kinda like you and me, but there’s something strange about them. They have emotions, desires and motivations similar to our own, but they’re just slightly artificial, much like the tatty wigs they all don. Much of their wackiness comes from their given circumstances – the scorched earth, the short life spans, the obsession with entering into contracts with one another – but to the ensemble’s credit, it’s just fun to watch these folks work as a team.
There are plenty of laugh out loud moments with some nice touches of sincerity throughout (especially between Adriane Daff and Pete Townsend); it’s lighthearted, fun, and not preachy in its subtle power to provoke.
Musical or not, this dystopian soap opera is an absorbing piece and bodes well for this newly-formed ensemble’s future output.