Joseph Merrick’s problem – in addition to a horrible disfiguring disease now thought to be neurofibromatosis type1 – was that he lived in the wrong century. Born in Victorian England, he was dependent on the considerable kindness of Dr. Frederick Treves, and was later the subject of an iconic play by Bernard Pomerance. Had he lived in our time, he doubtlessly would have had his own reality show – Very Extreme Makeover, perhaps – and his own talk show, as well as a book deal and maybe a record.
The Elephant Man – The Musical is set somewhere in the middle of these two scenarios. It is a sort of alternate history, where Merrick (Roger Mulligan) is rescued not by Treves but by Dr. James Lipscomb (Ira Sargent), a physician-cum- romance novelist down on his luck, and his spectacular companion Jessica Curvey (Haley Greenstein). Jessica has two medical degrees, but she is still in search of her true calling, eventually settling on being a stripper.
Merrick, too, searches for his true calling, but he knows what it is. The Elephant Man was born for Broadway, baby! We see the Elephant Man sing! We see the Elephant Man dance! We see him act! And he wows them in auditions, until he removes that enormous cloth bag over his head and reveals – his enormous head! Then they run away screaming. It falls to überproducer Presby Raincoat (Ryan Emmons), who is – you’ll never guess this – a flaming gay guy to decide that the world needs a musical based on the life of the Elephant Man, and that Dr. Lipscomb is the man to write it.
Funny! (Although I suspect it would have been less funny if Merrick was suffering from, say, Alzheimer’s instead of neurofibromatosis). And so well done! Mulligan and Greenstein have gorgeous voices; the songs are harmonious and witty; Simon Gunner’s dance choreography is brilliant; all four actors are obviously highly skilled. The Elephant Man -The Musical touches upon the Pomerance play periodically, and perceptively. And have I mentioned how good the songs are? They’re terrific!
And yet…and yet. At bottom, The Elephant Man – The Musical is sort of a one-trick pony. The trick is this: Joseph Merrick, brought low by a horrible illness, wishes to be a Broadway star. This is amusing to us, since we all know that we ourselves never became Broadway stars, in spite of our health and good looks. But Merrick – I don’t know if he would have thought it that funny. In any event, if you find yourself halfway into this show, watching all the superb choreography and letting all the swell singing sink in and saying to your self yeah, I get the point, know that you won’t be the only one in the room who feels that way.
The Elephant Man – The Musical
Book by Jeff Hylton and Tim Werenko
Music by Paul Jones and Jeff Hylton
Lyrics by Jeff Hylton
Directed by Julie Congress
Produced by No. 11 Productions
Reviewed by Tim Treanor