BWW Review: Studio Tenn's Stirring and Staggering THE ELEPHANT MAN
Startling, stunning and evocative performances by an ensemble of Nashville actors performing at the top of their game in an altogether effective and moving production of a contemporary classic: that's what audiences are likely recalling now - hours, days, weeks - after experiencing the latest artistic achievement from Studio Tenn. Following up the opening of their 2016-17 season - a critically lauded revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita, which launched the annual Broadway series at Tennessee Performing Arts Center - Studio Tenn presents another Broadway-worthy reiteration in the form of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man.
An aside, if you will allow me: Maybe I am more taken with this pairing of Evita and The Elephant Man than I would be were it not for this fact...they were the first two Broadway shows I saw in person in the same season, as a callow young man seeking adventure and inspiration.
Artistic director Matt Logan and managing director Jake Speck bring the magic and mystery of top-flight theater to life in Franklin with each subsequent production, one seemingly more amazing that the last, leaving audiences to wonder where the creative pair's next flight of fancy will take them. But if Studio Tenn were to shutter their windows, close up their dream factory and take off for parts unknown, local audiences could revel in what they have already witnessed and feel, somehow, satisfied by their tremendous good fortune to have seen such a dazzling display of theatrical starpower.
The imagination and daring with which Logan, Speck and company approach each project is awe-inspiring in its unyielding scope and the bravery of spirit so beautifully on display. If you missed The Elephant Man - as I almost did, only making it just barely to the production's final weekend of performances - you were robbed of an adventure which, somehow like lightning in a bottle, might be difficult to recapture no matter how skilled your descriptive powers. To be certain, your memories are limned by the daring with which the ensemble chose to become their characters and with the gorgeously appointed production design that has come to typify a Studio Tenn show.
To be totally candid and completely honest: The Elephant Man sets the standard for all other productions that will follow in its wake in a 2017 season certain to entertain and perhaps to astonish regional theater-goers with its wide range of dramatic offerings. Visually beautiful and viscerally compelling, it expounds upon the artistry that reverberates throughout Pomerance's sumptuous script, somehow propelling the story forward into a 21st century in which audiences are more demanding and exacting of their entertainment diversions.
Logan's attention to detail is evident from the first moment one enters the theater at Jamison Hall in The Factory at Franklin (in fact, the venue - a former mattress factory - provides the ideal setting for the play, set as it is in the tumultuous days of the late 19th century in London, where everything seems coated with the soot of a million chimneys) to the very last moment of the curtain call, in which the talented ensemble of actors and artists are rewarded with lengthy applause and adoration for a job so extraordinarily well-done.
The production's design aesthetic is vital to the show's overall success and Stephen Moss' lighting design illuminates the play's action to perfection, providing a guide for the audience to follow as the story unfolds before them. Eliza Garrity's sound design adds another layer to the production's overall impact, while Maggie D. Harris-Caudill's wig and makeup design captures the time period of the play with the requisite style and fashion of the day.
Logan's scenic design (executed with his usual and expected skill by technical director Mitch White) is impressive and his costume design is exquisitely realized as he creates the various scenes in the life of Joseph "John" Merrick, the loyal subject of Great Britain's royalty who became known throughout the realm as "the elephant man" due to his heretofore undiagnosed maladies that rendered him difficult to look at and reduced him to a much-maligned sideshow act subjected to the horrors of life to an almost unimaginable degree. Yet, Pomerance in his play somehow manages to convey the difficulties endured by Merrick and his evolution from freak show habitue to a favorite of the poshest of London's posh society which, though his circumstances seemed to improve still resigned him to life as an oddity, the plaything of a better-dressed coterie of gawkers who in their zeal managed to treat him only slightly better than the rough-hewned sorts who paid a tuppence for the opportunity.
At first blush and in cursory fashion, one would presume that Merrick's story would be difficult to dramatize. After all, his physical deformities would be difficult to recreate even with the modern advancements made in prosthetic theatrical make-up - and wouldn't watching someone so made up be hard to do for two hours? Instead, Pomerance allows his audiences to use their imaginations: Merrick is to played by an actor of normal carriage and demeanor, assuming the mantle of the freakish outcast through the arsenal of weapons he carried in his theatrical bag of tricks.
To that end, Logan has wisely cast the handsome Taylor Novak in the challenging role. As talented and as devoted to his craft as he is physically good-looking, Novak is the perfect actor to assay the role: committed and focused, dedicated to creating a believable portrayal of a man judged most harshly for his physical appearance. Novak burrows into the role, losing himself in the amazingly transformative manner of the most gifted of actors to become John Merrick without any sense of stagey artifice mangling his portrayal. Rather, the actor assumes the persona of Merrick with a skillful grace that ensures audiences will respond more easily to his engaging manner and, perhaps, be more moved by the real-life terrors the actual man was forced to endure during his life.
Clearly, Novak's performance affords the actor a star-making turn, an unbelievable opportunity to take on an acting challenge one can only dream of as a theatrical career looms in the offing. Novak's Merrick is overpowering in his intensity, yet somehow tender and almost unassuming in his grace. Thankfully, under Logan's skilled tutelage and unyielding vision, Novak skirts any sense of caricature and eschews sentimentality to instead transform himself into the very flesh-and-blood model of the individual he plays in a fictionalized account of his life.
In the role of his young lifetime, Novak makes the most of his situation and the result is startling and moving.
Logan, his directorial eye unfettered thanks to his roles as designer and artistic director, surrounds Novak with a cast of actors who bring years of experience - and the wealth of their theater resumes - to the stage and leave nothing to chance, imbuing their various characters with alacrity and honesty. Brent Maddox, the Belmont University acting professor who time after time has put his own ample talents on display, once again scores an astonishing performance, taking on the role of Dr. Frederick Treves (the man of science whose faith is tested as he attempts to lay plans for a better life for Merrick) with his customary charm and instinct. Maddox is so completely believable as Treves that it's easy to forget he is an actor taking on a role and, thus, you are better able to respond to his artful blend of humor and pathos.
Megan Murphy Chambers, one of the region's most gifted actresses whose range is mind-altering (she's so adept at playing comedy that when she tackles a dramatic role, it's nothing short of breathtaking) and inspiring, to say the least. As Mrs. Kendall, the grand London actress who becomes a close friend of Merrick after first seeming to be just another wild-eyed fan, Chambers is ideally cast, capturing the high-strung and over-the-top personality of her character so beautifully that she is able to (just as easily) display the warmth of the genuine woman behind the theatrical façade. Her initial interactions with Treves and Merrick are wonderfully madcap and slightly naughty, it would seem, while her later moments are underscored by real emotion and a depth of character perhaps unattainable by someone less gifted than Chambers. And that she cuts such a gorgeous figure in Logan's costumes only adds to the scope of her staggering portrayal.
As Ross, the harsh and evil master to Merrick's elephant man, and as the kind and beatific Bishop How, Matthew Carlton is also given an exquisite opportunity to show the range of his skills to great effect, somehow morphing from one end of the scale to the opposite with equal dexterity. Conrad John Schuck is wonderfully cast as the London Hospital director who sees the possibilities in providing refuge to Merrick as he lives out his final days, while Karen Sternberg is effective as a nurse whose past experience treating lepers leaves her ill-prepared to care for Merrick, but it is her performance as Princess Alexandra that is perhaps even more memorable.
Completing the ensemble, playing roles ranging from policemen to orderlies, sideshow freaks to various royals, are the versatile Matthew Rosenbaum, Garris Wimmer, McKenzie Wilkes, Rebekah Lecocq, Anna Dewy and Jake Perotti.
The Elephant Man. By Bernard Pomerance. Directed and designed by Matt Logan. Produced by Jake Speck. Presented by Studio Tenn, Franklin. February 16-27 at Jamison Theater at The Factory at Franklin. For further details, go to www.studiotenn.com.
photos by MA2LA