Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN Recalls Victorian Era Exploitation of and Fascination with Physically Deformed John Merrick

Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN Recalls Victorian Era Exploitation of and Fascination with Physically Deformed John Merrick

I have always regretted not seeing David Bowie in the title role of THE ELEPHANT MAN on Broadway from 1980-81, when he portrayed John Merrick, a 19th century Englishman who had an unprecedented physical deformation. It was certainly a stroke of genius to cast Bowie as Merrick as reviewers acknowledged he brought an other-worldliness to the role and revealed a sensitivity rarely seen in his music or avant-garde stage personas at that time. And while all the accolades must have warmed his heart, no doubt the end of the run must have been an extraordinarily difficult time for him with the murder of his friend John Lennon close by.

Similar to David Bowie's awe-inspiring physical transformation in the title role on Broadway, the current production of Bernard Pomerance's THE ELEPHANT MAN, a classic true-life tale and heart-wrenching story that depicts the best and the worst of humanity, Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN Recalls Victorian Era Exploitation of and Fascination with Physically Deformed John Merrick presented by Thursday Night Theatre Club at the El Portal in NoHo, features an amazing performance by Tom Vitorino in the title role. His first appearance occurs with Merrick completely covered by filthy rags and laying in the dirt at a travelling Freak Show. But it is Vitorino's physical transformation, dressed only in Victorian-era underwear, as his deformities are described by his friend and savoir, Dr. Frederick Treves (John Ralston Craig), that sets the stage for the incredible production which follows that scene.

For those not familiar with this Tony Award-winning drama, THE ELEPHANT MAN Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN Recalls Victorian Era Exploitation of and Fascination with Physically Deformed John Merrick takes place in Victorian England 1884, based on the real-life events of John Merrick, a 19th century Englishman who was a victim of a rare skin and bone disease called Proteus Syndrome. Abandoned by his parents due to his deformities, Merrick eventually becomes the star of a traveling freak show circuit, managed by a heartless tormentor (Jay Parker) who constantly beats him for disobeying orders. Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN Recalls Victorian Era Exploitation of and Fascination with Physically Deformed John Merrick Then, after being discovered by the renowned Dr. Frederick Treves who takes Merrick under his care at a London hospital, Treves is soon astonished by the young man's brilliant mind, unshakable faith, and passionate desire for love, acceptance and romance.

As Merrick learns to trust and communicate with others willing to accept him just as he is, his acquaintance with a beautiful actress,
Mrs. Kendal (Alice L. Walker, exquisitely dressed in period-perfect, high class grace by Melissa "Moe" Marks), opens his heart to Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN Recalls Victorian Era Exploitation of and Fascination with Physically Deformed John Merrick experiencing feminine love for the first time. In fact, when she reaches out and removes her glove to shake his hand, Merrick hesitates as no woman has ever touched him before. Merrick's disbelief after that handshake is brilliantly displayed by Vitorino's wide-mouth stare at his just-touched left hand, almost as if I could feel the warmth emanating from it to his just-opened heart. No doubt director Robyn Cohen allowed her own feminine vision of the characters' emotions to shine through during this as well as every heart wrenching scene, including the reason for Merrick's untimely passing in 1890 at the age of 27.

As Mrs. Kendal becomes entranced by Merrick's pure and genuine soul, Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN Recalls Victorian Era Exploitation of and Fascination with Physically Deformed John Merrick returning weekly to read to and encourage his ever-expanding knowledge, a complex friendship between the three main characters blossoms. Dr. Treves and Mrs. Kendal struggle to protect Merrick from the severity of his worsening condition, as well as from a world of opportunism and exploitation that make achieving a normal life seem all but impossible. Perhaps Treves' biggest opponent is the hospital's administrator (Skip Pipo) whose demands are almost as brutal as the beatings Merrick received during his early life.

Other actors of note include Jon Sperry as Bishop Howe whose counsel is frequently sought out, Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN Recalls Victorian Era Exploitation of and Fascination with Physically Deformed John Merrick and the three lovely ladies who portray multiple characters from the Pinheads who also travel with the freak show to high class society ladies who follow Mrs. Kendal's lead and befriend the hospitalized Merrick (Jennipher Lewis, Robin Roth, and Vanessa Vaughn). Nathan Wallace charmed the audience during his opening speech as Snork, a hospital orderly (and policeman) who returns quite often to assist other orderlies/policemen (Albert Soratorio, Logan Padilla, David Revana) with the many Lillian George set design changes necessary during the performance. No doubt lighting designer Bo Tindall's blue-lit lengthy scene transitions were necessary to allow the cast to change costumes.

Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN Recalls Victorian Era Exploitation of and Fascination with Physically Deformed John Merrick Thursday Night Theatre Club's production of THE ELEPHANT MAN by Bernard Pomerance runs March 21 - 23 and April 3 - 14, 2019, directed by Robyn Cohen and co-produced by Tom Vitorino and Alice L. Walker, at The Historic El Portal Theatre at 5269 Lankershim Blvd. in No. Hollywood, CA. 91601. Running time: 135 minutes (including one intermission). Tickets range from $25-$55, available by phone at (818) 508-4200 or at www.ElPortalTheatre.com Additional information about Thursday Night Theater Club at www.ThursdayNightTheaterClub.com

Photography by David Ruano and Jason Ross Levy


BroadwayWorld Logo Vote Now for the 2022 BroadwayWorld Los Angeles Awards
Vote Nowvoting ends in



The Progressive Contemporary Dance of Gibney Company To Make Los Angeles Debut at USC Photo
Visions and Voices, USC's premiere arts and humanities program, will present the Gibney Company on Friday, January 20, 2023. The world-class, New York-based contemporary dance company's performance at historic Bovard Auditorium is free and open to the public.

El Portal Theatre Presents Three Special Shows For The Holidays! Photo
El Portal Theatre presents three special shows to celebrate the holidays onstage at the historic El Portal Theatre Debbie Reynolds Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd. in the NOHO Arts District, North Hollywood, CA.

Free CHARACTER TRANSFORMATION WORKSHOPS: With World Renown Acting Teacher Giles Foreman An Photo
Free three hour character transformation workshops with world renown acting teacher Giles Foreman will be held in person in New York City and Los Angeles. 

Langson IMCA Presents New Exhibition BRUTON SISTERS: MODERNISM IN THE MAKING Photo
UCI Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art (Langson IMCA) is presenting The Bruton Sisters: Modernism in the Making, a new exhibition organized by guest curator Wendy Van Wyck Good.


From This Author - Shari Barrett

Shari Barrett, a Los Angeles native, has been active in the theater world since the age of six - acting, singing, and dancing her way across the boards all over town. After teaching in secondary sc... (read more about this author)


Interview: Cirque du Soleil's Stefan Haves, Creator and Director of SHAMBLESInterview: Cirque du Soleil's Stefan Haves, Creator and Director of SHAMBLES
December 7, 2022

The Actors' Gang is excited to present their family friendly holiday show, Shambles, an unbridled concoction of seasonal charm and sassy cunning all rolled up in a cirque-infused panto, blurring the lines between audience and performers. When I read that this immersive experience will drop theater goers into a 60's NASA holiday party complete with alien abductions, ugly Christmas sweaters, and free-flowing champagne offered as theatergoers meander through curated rooms of wonder, I knew I had to speak with the production's creator and director, Cirque du Soleil's Stefan Haves about his vision to bring such fun family fare to the stage.

Interview: Playwright Jim Leonard on the L.A. premiere of ANATOMY OF GRAYInterview: Playwright Jim Leonard on the L.A. premiere of ANATOMY OF GRAY
November 17, 2022

Jim Leonard has published eight plays, including The Diviners, And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson, and Battle Hymn, with his theatrical honors including the Outer Critics Circle Award, an Ovation Award, the Dramatists Guild Award, and an LA Weekly Award for best play.

Interview: Shawn Lefty Plunkett on presenting the West Coast premiere of John Mabey's A COMPLICATED HOPEInterview: Shawn Lefty Plunkett on presenting the West Coast premiere of John Mabey's A COMPLICATED HOPE
November 15, 2022

John Mabey's three-person play A Complicated Hope centers around Marie and her daughter Rose Marie who are left adrift after their husband and father, Michael, passes away. But it's how he leaves that alters the lives of the family forever, especially after they meet Arnie, Michael's boyfriend. Mirroring the erratic path of grief itself, A Complicated Hope flashes between the moments in time that changed them all, exploring the challenges of both finding a family of choice and letting yourself be found. Earlier this year, Kentwood Players presented a reading of Mabey's play in which Shawn Lefty Plunkett portrayed the role of Arnie. I was curious to find out what led to his decision to produce the fully-staged West Coast premiere of A Complicated Hope as well as take on the role of Arnie again.

Interview: Anne Marie Ketchum, Founding Artistic Director of the Verdi Chorus, on their Upcoming VERDI PUCCINI FESTInterview: Anne Marie Ketchum, Founding Artistic Director of the Verdi Chorus, on their Upcoming VERDI PUCCINI FEST
October 30, 2022

As an early holiday present for opera lovers, On November 12 and 13, the Verdi Chorus’ 39th season culminates with a Verdi Puccini Fest for two performances only at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica. Under the direction of Founding Artistic Director Anne Marie Ketchum, who promises the program will include “some of the most exciting moments from two of the greatest operatic composers who ever lived,” I decided to speak with her on its inception, creation, and what makes the Verdi Chorus such a special part of our city.

Interview: Playwright Cyndy A. Marion on the West Coast Premiere of BROKEN STORYInterview: Playwright Cyndy A. Marion on the West Coast Premiere of BROKEN STORY
October 28, 2022

A serial killer's backstory always seems to fascinate people more so than that of their prey. But what is it about these vicious murderers that inspires works of art being written about them? That question popped into my head when I heard about the West Coast premiere of Cyndy A. Marion's play Broken Story, which was inspired by the murder of writer Susan Berman and her close relationship with serial killer Robert Durst. I knew I wanted to find out what inspired Cyndy to create the play and how she conducted her research.