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THE MARVELLOUS ELEPHANT MAN: THE MUSICAL – ADELAIDE FRINGE 2023 at Wonderland Spiegeltent At Wonderland Festival Hub, Hindmarsh Square

Taking the story of Joseph Merrick, and turning it into a musical comedy, is not something that immediately suggests itself as a winning prescription. The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical is in good hands, co-directed by the UK-based Olivier-award winner, Guy Masterson, who has brought many excellent productions to the Adelaide Fringe over the years, and Melbourne-based film director, Christopher Mitchell. Six years in the making, it was first performed at the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 2022, but has now undergone considerable dramaturgy, tightening the production for the Adelaide Fringe. The opening night had a full house, and closed to a well-deserved standing ovation.

It is written and composed by Marc Lucchesi, with New York composer and arranger, Jayan Nandagopan, and singer-songwriter, recording artist, and Broadway accompanist, Sarah Nandagopan, who is also the Musical Director. The very enthusiastic Sarah Nandagopan also adds vocal harmony, and gets as close as one can to dancing while seated at her piano keyboard, as she leads her very fine group of musicians.

Joseph Carey Merrick (born Leicester, 5 August 1862 and died London Hospital, 11 April 1890), is now believed to have suffered from the rare Proteus Syndrome, causing growth all over his body. It began when he was three years old. In 1884, to earn money, he asked to be exhibited in Sam Torr’s freak exhibition as the Elephant Man. Dr. Frederick Treves took him to the London Hospital, where he lived from 1886 until his death, aged 27. He became a celebrity, visited by the rich and famous, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales. He mistakenly came to be known as John Merrick.

This musical draws on those basic facts, using them as a starting point to create a completely new story, turning Dr. Treves into a villain, and introducing a love interest. There are hints of Gothic horror, Rocky Horror Show, Beauty and the Beast, and more, in this richly rewarding production.

Ben Clark plays John Merrick in a truly marvellous performance, using only white face makeup and a simple costume of a sleeveless top and knee-length shorts to separate him from the rest of the cast. He relies entirely on his superb acting skills to convey the impression of his character’s hideous deformities. Clark’s Merrick is initially used and abused, accepting his fate, gradually growing in inner strength and confidence, overcoming the many obstacles in his path, falling in love, and rising to his full potential. Clark is not only a great actor, but also an equally great singer, making the role his own in a moving performance.

Kanen Breen is also marvellous as Merrick’s nemesis, Dr Frederick Treves, who exploits Merrick to boost his own reputation in the medical world, and his status in society. Dr. Treves is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, a despicable amalgamation of every possible repulsive trait. It’s a dream role for an actor, and Breen is making that dream come true in a stellar performance.

Annelise Hall plays Nurse Hope, the embodiment of sweetness and light, who treats John as a human being. Her interactions with John bring about a change in her, too. Engaged to Dr. Treves, whom she initially sees as a fine catch, she eventually realises that he has no feelings for her, seeing her as just a suitable, socially acceptable match as a wife, a timid mouse that he can control, mould to his requirements, and give him children. She comes to the realisation that she is actually in love with John. Hall gives a beautifully nuanced performance.

Marc Lucchesi plays multiple roles, with numerous accents, as the Ring Master, Giancarlo, Mama Mamushka, a sinister merchant, and De La Frugè, clearly delineating each of his characters. He is a commanding presence and, although spread across those roles, his contribution is as much as the aforementioned three performers.

That is not to say that the others in the cast do any less as they, too, play numerous roles and are onstage most of time as an ensemble. Ellie MacIntyre is Nurse Chastity and Aunt Brigitta, and Francesca Li Donni is Nurse Faith and Dame Vivanda Vinatoni. Lachlan Bartlett plays Dr. Thomas and Kip, Lucian Reeder is Father Hopkins, Sam Harmon plays Dr. Jones, and Jayan Nandagopan plays a prisoner. All six form the ensemble, displaying considerable versatility as they switch from one character to another, singing up a storm, and enthusiastically performing the energetic dance routines, choreographed by Eden Read.

The constantly changing set and wonderfully eclectic costume designs are by Roberto Surace, with Rachel Nankin as the associate designer. The clear, crisp, well-balanced sound design is by Wayne Pashley, and the highly effective and atmospheric lighting is by Jason Bovaird.

I am convinced that is only a matter of time before this production becomes a main stage musical in the West End and on Broadway, with tickets costing an arm and a leg and audiences having to book a year or more in advance, so catch it now and be one of the few who can say that they saw it before it became famous. The preview, and now the opening night, sold out, so book here quickly if you want to see this one.

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