Review by Thomas Gregory
For those prone to buying outrageously-priced tickets to every Broadway musical that comes to town, boy do I have a cheaper show with just as high production value and possibly a better cast than you've seen this year. The Marvellous Elephant Man is going to be the stand-out show of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for all who desire only romance and song. Colourful, exuberant, and far more polished than most MICF productions, the musical is a safe love story filled with barely-risque-but-slightly-inappropriate humour your grandmother will love.
Inspired by the story of Joseph Merrick, this cookie-cutter show will impress many with its incredible performers and sometimes-catchy song list. Set in pseudo-Victorian England, the musical follows a fictional Merrick as he is sold by a circus to an enterprising doctor, falls in love with a nurse, and eventually finds the strength to stand up for himself.
The cast for The Marvellous Elephant Man is close to faultless. Kanen Breen stands out as he channels Harvey Korman's performance in the movie "Blazing Saddles". The costumers might have struggled not to dress his villainous doctor, full of arrogance and ambition, in the more traditional attire of a black cape so that Breen might chuckle wildly behind it.
Annalise Hall is also brilliant as Nurse Hope. While terribly miscast according to the show’s dialogue (with this contradiction making one particular song become complete nonsense), Hall is both a captivating performer and an incredible singer. Ben Clark, as the titular Merrick, is easy to empathise with, giving us the impression of someone shunned and vulnerable without the need for any special makeup..
Marc Lucchesi is clearly the audience favourite, though. Also one of the writers of the show, his scene-chewing performance hit all notes consistent with the show's tone, for better or worse, and is loved by almost everyone who attends.
The rest of the cast is impeccable, and it is almost insulting to label anyone as an "ensemble". Each playing multiple roles, they are all consummate performers who would take starring roles in any other show. I especially look forward to the next time I see Francesca Li Donni on stage, having experienced their skill as both singer and comedian.
The incredible cast is backed by a small band led by fellow writer/composer Sarah Nandagopan. While no song will become an earworm, most are very enjoyable pieces you'll want to hear again. Particular favourites for me include "Three Little Mean Girls", Fool's Gold" and "Make a Freak". Between the brilliant music and the solid choreography by Eden Read, one can forgive the sometimes clunky lyrics found within other songs.
If there is any real complaint to be made about The Marvellous Elephant Man, it comes from mistaken expectations more than the production itself.
You see, at the top of almost all marketing material for this show is the quote from another reviewer, calling it "The Book of Mormon meets Beauty & the Beast". Two other quotes mention it as being "witty". With such descriptions, and by its very position as part of the MICF, one might assume that there may be some element of satire to be found. And if not satire, then perhaps some clever little dialogue you might find in a Noel Coward play.
The Marvellous Elephant Man is not that kind of show. It makes no effort to provide any commentary or message about today, its humour is juvenile and filled with the type of "bawdy" humour you would not be ashamed to have your middle-class grandmother hear. At times, a young modern audience might even cringe. One song, for example, equates the crime of being a transvestite prostitute with the crime of being a child-abusing priest. One minor character's shtick is that they are gay (and many jokes equate simply to "I have anal sex"). Still, these possibly problematic jokes are presented with such innocence that they appear forgivable to most audiences.
There is no depth to The Marvellous Elephant Man and zero B-plot to be found. Look beyond the incredible performances and polished production values, and you will find a void. However, for superficial fun and some delightful music, you could not ask for better.
The award-winning Marvellous Elephant Man is a musical sure to win the heart of any theatre patron currently waiting to see "& Juliet". While not quite suitable for children, this musical pantomime may easily become a favourite of the MICF for your more conventional theatregoer.