The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical

AAR-MICF-The-Marvellous-Elephant-Man-The-MusicalFew characters can be evoked in one line. ‘I am not an animal’ might bring to mind David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man or the near endless novels it’s based on (and the true story behind all that!).

It’s the perfect summary of an age-old tale: a call to arms against dehumanising prejudice and cruelty. It is also the perfect subject for a side-splittingly funny parody musical it turns out.

In the hands of writers Marc Lucchesi, Sarah Nandagopan and Jayan Nandagopan, The Marvellous Elephant Man story is fodder for a bawdy musical about self-love, independence and sexual liberation.

It’s the Hunchback of Notre Dame meets Little Shop of Horrors, packed to the brim with catchy tunes, raunchy punchlines and raucous characters. These writers have found new life in the tale. Supported by a killer cast, it’s absurd fun.

There are the usual plot points – John Merrick (Ben Clark) is discovered by Dr. Treves (Kanen Breen) in a circus freak show. Treves soon takes the elephant hybrid under his wing to a hospital where he meets and falls in love with Nurse Hope (Annelise Hall).

Chaos ensues in the form of various tongue-in-cheek musical numbers – an ode to well-endowed Italian women, hymens and gold-diggers – interspersed with ballads that show Merrick grappling with his sense of his own monstrosity, and the societal prejudice stopping him from acting on his love for Hope. Each infectious melody features a litany of crude lyrics matched by an equally blue script.

It’s a delightfully absurd juxtaposition (aided by Roberto Surace’s elegantly rendered period costumes) and the show works best when it leans into it. Act Two, which exaggerates this formula to camp extremes, is more surefooted than Act One.

The first act relegates Merrick and Hope to a near-constant earnestness that makes them appear like wet blankets in comparison to the more playful supporting characters. Clark is an incredible vocalist and it was frustrating to see his soaring top notes and dramatic delivery face an uphill battle to gain the audience’s sympathies.

Hall matches Clark with a pristine soprano (and an underutilised powerful belt), but overtakes him with more wry anachronisms and comedic timing that complements the exaggerated campiness of the show’s writing. Thankfully Act Two gives Clark more comedic beats and bawdy absurdities to play with.

Other stand outs among the cast include Kanen Breen as Dr. Treves. With his posh accent and killer operatic vocals, Breen is Vincent Price meets Dr. Frank-N-Furter – an outrageous villain that Breen elevates with strong physicality and an instinctual sense of comedic timing.

Among a talented supporting cast, nurses Eleanor Macintyre and Francesa Li Donni are particular highlights. Their sharp repartee and well-honed comedic instincts help diversify some comedic bits that would become stale in lesser hands. While the set – a simple cirque-style beige curtain perfect for touring – becomes a technicolour magic show with the help of Jason Bovaird’s colourful lighting design.

While it is part of the show’s off-colour brand to lean into moments of transgressive humour, it focuses too often on tired gender stereotypes and overly sexualised interludes that revisit misogynistic tropes.

Though it is a tongue-in-cheek musical, it would do well to think more critically about what demographics are chosen as the subject of its parodic writing. Back-to-back numbers that focus on hypersexualised Italian women, hymens, marrying for money, or a bad-faith drag number, recycle tired ideas for comedic value.

Any intention to poke fun at the ridiculousness of these ideas is compromised by the show’s insistence on constantly revisiting them. A hackneyed pattern begins to emerge as it revisits punchlines that objectify and sexualise women without offering its female cast much of anything else to do, meaning the jokes quickly start to appear predictable and needlessly regressive.

The Marvellous Elephant Man shines best when it abandons all realism for an absurdist playfulness that finds its crudeness in different subjects.

A pantomime-esq ending is delightfully chaotic: tusks grow out of nowhere, hybrid monsters battle it out, and psychopathic surgeons don glitter jackets. It’s a feast for the senses, and pure unbridled fun.

With a more varied comedic style, it is sure to have a long life on Australian stages. Leaving the theatre, I was but one of many still humming along to its infectious melodies.

The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical
Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Performance: Thursday 20 April 2023 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 23 April 2023

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Image: The Marvellous Elephant Man (supplied)

Review: Guy Webster