The Marvellous Elephant Man the Musical: Like the earliest, rowdiest, uncut showings of Book of Mormon

If you’re wondering whether to see The Marvellous Elephant Man the Musical, ask yourself this: were the earliest, rowdiest, uncut showings of Book of Mormon worth watching?

Original Article

As I lowered myself into a creaky chair in Brunswick’s cosy Jazzlab, I didn’t know what to expect. Audiences had raved about the play. Journalists had not yet to comment. Given how little is known about Joseph Merrick – the human known as ‘the Elephant Man’ – the mystery surrounding the show felt fitting.

150 minutes later, the curtains fell and the audience rose. Standing ovation-ing with the rest of the crowd, I couldn’t shake the feeling we’d just witnessed the birth of something.

The producers describe the show as an ‘irreverent and inaccurate retelling of the Elephant Man.’ That sums it up. This musical belongs to the Inglorious Basterds school of history.

The story begins in the freak show. A big musical number introduces us to the hero, underlining the prejudice he faces, while placing the musical firmly in the grand, slightly-camp West End tradition. In short order, we meet the antagonist, Doctor Treves, and the love interest, Nurse Hope.

Lachlan Bartlett takes an excellent turn as the callous aristocrat Treves, while Caitlin Rooke and Conor Morrell oozed talent as the quixotic Nurse Hope and the charming John Merrick. All three leads demonstrated solid acting chops, but their singing captivated the audience.

The Marvellous Elephant Man the Musical was scripted, scored and performed by three professional musicians – Marc Lucchesi, along with Jayan and Sarah Nandagopan – and it shows. The score is excellent, and the skeleton crew of on-stage multi-instrumentalists carried the soundtrack across a dizzyingly diverse range of genres.

Songs like the ultra-earnest Fools Gold and Make a Freak channel Rodgers & Hammerstein. Meanwhile, Bad sounded like a Johnny Cash cover of Mulan’s ‘I’ll make a man out of you.’ Co-writer Lucchesi solo-d several songs under different (but equally silly) guises and had a ball doing it. His deliciously sleazy delivery of Just like in Italy – with its ridiculous rhyming refrains – left some audience members giggling so hard they were gasping for breath.

In many ways, the Marvellous Elephant Man is a relatively traditional musical. The narrative arc is familiar, the characters are archetypal, and there’s campiness and silliness in spades. In the hands of less skilled storytellers and song-writers, this play would feel formulaic, but it doesn’t. And in the hands of other creative minds, the nearly non-existent sets and quick costume changes would feel cheap, but they never do.

If Doctor Treves held a scalpel to my head, and insisted I describe the play in a sentence, I’d say ‘Book of Mormon meets Beauty and the Beast.’ With that synopsis in mind, given some editing and budget for sets and stage lighting, it’s hard to imagine where this play couldn’t go.

For some reason, I keep comparing this play to another running at the same time: Kip Williams’ The Picture of Dorian Gray. Both are set in late Victorian London, follow the stories of young men, and contain elements of magic realism, but there the similarities end. Where Dorain Gray is a visually-stunning, technically-unparallelled manifesto of what theatre could be, the Elephant Man is an utterly-ridiculous, side-splittingly hilarious, deeply heartwarming love letter to what musicals once were.

The Marvellous Elephant Man isn’t just fun, he’s the hero post-lockdown Australia needs.


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