After a sold-out run at Wonderland Spiegeltent as part of Adelaide’s Fringe Festival, for which it won the Adelaide Critics Circle Award, The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical has arrived at Chapel Off Chapel for a limited season as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
The Marvellous Elephant Man is loosely based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a severely disfigured man who was exhibited as a freak in 1800s England, and the cruelty he suffered as an outcast from society. Notably, David Lynch’s 1980 biographical drama film The Elephant Man – featuring Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt and Anne Bancroft – was nominated for eight Oscars.
Directed by Chris Mitchell and Guy Masterson, this entertaining and imaginative musical re-imagining sees writers and composers (Marc Lucchesi, Sarah Nandagopan and Jayan Nandagopan) take the original story and twist it into something refreshingly different.
Musically, being melodic and lyrical, is where it excels. Taking on a range of different genres, including jazz, pop, opera, rock, cabaret and more. Full of toe-tapping earworms, I would have bought an album featuring the songs right there and then; it’s the one thing the show is missing.
The production has done well recreating a circle-like environment, the theatre has been transformed into a tent, blanketed by a plain fabric backdrop with rope. The stage is minimal with two raised platforms on either side – one sits the band and the other is used for various scenes including a restaurant and operating room. Most of the action takes place at ground level. Various set and prop pieces by Claudio Mantuano are moved in and out to establish location, as does clever lighting design by Jason Bovaid, most notably during the jail scene as well as the I Really Need This number.
For a low budget production, the costumes (mostly late-Victorian) are better than expected, especially that of the elaborate apex predator costume towards the end of the musical. You can forgive seeing Alex Negus’ boxers at the back of his open costume and other similar moments because by that point you’re already enchanted by this little gem of a musical. Whereas this might be a detriment to other productions, set and costume designer, Roberto Surace has injected money where it’s needed most – and it’s enough to get by without complaint.
While certainly more could be done to make Ben Clark – the Elephant Man/Joseph (known as John) Merrick – look more like his real-life counterpart, but I think that’s the joke… Instead of prosthetics, Clark’s hair and face are covered in white make-up. He is, however, still handsome. Vocally and artistically, Clark’s performance is incredibly strong and his voice powerful. He readily projects vulnerability and fear.
His tenor voice marries perfectly against love interest, Nurse Hope (Annelise Hall), who sees behind the physical and enables Merrick’s inner self to bloom. She is wholesome and angelic and personifies beauty and love in their purest forms.
Seasoned performer, Kanen Breen is by far the best. Never has a man been so wickedly portrayed on stage than that of Dr. Frederick Treves. His elongated moustache says so much about his character – it’s not the twirling villain type – but it’s perfect. It’s just another layer for Breen, who milks the role for all its worth – the dream role of any actor.
The distinctive moustache is, however, sadly missing in the video recording of I Found You! on The Marvellous Elephant Man YouTube page (as below).
Another stand out is the Marc Lucchesi of Vaudeville Smash, making his theatrical debut. He excels in his eccentric and diverse characters of The Ring Master, Giancarlo, Mama Mamushka, Merchant and De La Frugé. He’s an all-in kind of performer who has the ability to enchant the audience with his larger-than-life presence and humour.
The ensemble cast, made up of Francesca Li Donni, Eleanor MacIntyre, Tod Strike, Troy Sussman and Lachlan Barlett, are all given their moments to shine. Co-writer and co-composer Jayan Nandagopan also takes the stage as a prisoner for the standout song, Bad Bad Bad. I do love a boy band moment!
While at times crude, it’s not overly vulgar. It’s recommended for ages over 15+ and rightly so. If you don’t like hearing about sex, penis size, hymen etc. this isn’t a musical for you.
Avoid the first couple of rows if you don’t want to make awkward eye contact with the actors or band. You might also get a joke thrown at your expense like I did – Breen looked straight at me and sung, “that woman’s physique” during the Make A Freak number. All in jest, of course, we had locked eyes earlier. Arrive early for minor interaction between the audience and cast though. It’s worth it. I promise if your Doritos get taken, they do bring them back. It’s part of the show.
It’s a shame that The Marvellous Elephant Man is only playing Melbourne for a limited time. As a whole, the show is delightful, wickedly funny and deserving of repeat viewing. As a clever, fresh and intelligent Australian work, it deserves a bigger stage and grander audience. Go see it!
Like the best website says, “Don’t miss this gothic fairy tale retelling that’s as hysterical and heart-warming as it is heartbreaking.”
The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical must close on April 23.
For more information and tickets, head to comedyfestival.com.au.