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Crudeness holds ‘Elephant Man’ musical back

From left, performers Annelise Hall, Marc Lucchesi and Kanen Breen. Photo: Paul Scott

Musical Theatre / “The Marvellous Elephant Man – The Musical”, Sydney Spiegeltent until October 1. Reviewed by BILL STEPHENS.

A SPIEGELTENT should surely provide the perfect environment for a musical about a 19th century man, John Merrick, who was inflicted with a rare condition so extreme that he was forced to join a freak-show to support himself.

In many ways it does, but curiously, in this case it also works against the potential of the show.

In conceiving “The Marvellous Elephant Man – The Musical” the writers and composers, Marc Lucchesi, Sarah Nandagopan and Jayan Nandagopan, have come up with a potentially absorbing musical.

Described by its creators as “delightfully irreverent and remarkably inaccurate”, “The Marvellous Elephant Man” is laden with catchy tunes, often witty lyrics, pretty costumes and imaginative staging, but somehow never quite finds its target.

Preceded by an enthusiastic advertising campaign trumpeting critic’s awards and five-star reviews garnered through performances in Melbourne and Adelaide, and hinting of seasons to follow in London and New York, expectations for its Sydney season were high.

Hope (Annelise Hall). Photo: Paul Scott

The show certainly boasts an impressive cast, headed by young opera singer, Ben Clark as John Merrick, the Elephant Man; rising star Annelise Hall as his love interest, Nurse Hope; Australia’s finest comic-opera interpreter, Kanen Breen as the dastardly Dr Treves; with one of the creators, Marc Lucchesi lording over the proceedings as the Ringmaster.

The sung-through show starts promisingly with the Elephant Man being lowered from a cage strung high above the heads of the audience. Then follows a   series of catchy, well-staged songs, most of which sound like songs from other shows, in the style of a topical revue.

Surprisingly, given some of the publicity images, Ben Clark interprets Merrick, the Elephant Man, shirtless, and without any sign of his disability other than a small tusk each side of his face; his value as a freak-show attraction being explained by the Ringmaster with the oft-repeated lyric “sired by an elephant”.

Clark relies on a combination of naivety, sincerity and a superb voice, which he reveals in “Wonderful”, then later in “I Am Not an Animal” and “Dear Hope” to captivate his audience.

Annelise Hall brings similar qualities to her role as Nurse Hope, with whom Merrick quickly becomes enamoured. Their duets, “Fool’s Gold”, “I Really Need This” and “Two to Fall in Love” are highlights, but at odds and out of style with the burlesque flavour of much of the rest of the show.

As the dastardly Dr Treves, who discovers Merrick’s potential for exploitation, Kanen Breen gives a masterful performance. His brilliantly performed duet with Merrick, “I Found You”, is a standout, while elsewhere his virtuosic interpretation of his role makes his performance one to relish.

Elsewhere it is left to hard-working Marc Lucchesi, as the Ringmaster and other miscellaneous characters, to provide the cringe-worthy bawdiness, which some may have expected.

This he does with undisguised relish, assisted by a talented ensemble in which Eleanor MacIntyre (Nurse Chastity) and Rebecca Rolle (Nurse Faith), Sam Harmon (Dr Jones), Lachlan Bartlett (Dr Thomas) and  Gavin James (Dr Timmis) perform a series of cleverly choreographed set pieces supported by an excellent band consisting of Scott Page (bass guitar), Travis New (guitar/mandolin), Andy Horvath (drums) and the composers, Sarah Nandagopan (piano), Jayan Nandagopan (trombone) and Marc Lucchesi himself on saxophone.

However, it is crudeness of much of the comedy, heavy on dick jokes and often demeaning, that detracts from the brilliance of the writing elsewhere, and prevents “The Marvellous Elephant Man” from rising beyond being merely a fringe show to a fully-fledged musical, for which it obviously has the potential and the ambitions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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