Monday, December 29, 2014

Broadway Theater Review: The Elephant Man with Bradley Cooper (Top Pick)

Bradley Cooper Transforms into Both Elephant Man and Stage Star Before Our Eyes
By Lauren Yarger
There is a reason Broadway’s The Elephant Man is doing gangbusters at the box office and has already recouped for its investors: it’s terrific.

Two-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”) turns in what will surely be a Tony-award nominated performance in Bernard Pomerance’s play about Joseph Merrick, a horribly deformed man who became the toast of Victorian society in London.
Merrick (named John here and played by Cooper), suffers from a bone disease that causes elephant-like skin development, an oversized head and other deformities that make him an outcast. He finds himself living a horrible life in a workhouse, then as a sideshow freak under the cruel, exploitive management of a man called Ross (Anthony Heald).

He eventually finds his way to a kind doctor, Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola) who wants to study Merrick “in the interest of science.” He launches a public drive for funds and brings Merrick to London Hospital – at first against the wishes of its head, Carr Gomm (Henry Stram) -- where he is sheltered and finds the first “home” he ever has known.

While Treves lectures students about his subject, with the help of slides showing Merrick’s grotesquely tortured body, we see Cooper transform into the Elephant Man as each deformity is addressed. The performance, under the direction of Scott Ellis, who helmed this production in Williamstown in 2012, renders makeup, prosthetics or additional costuming unnecessary for Cooper to make the transition. It’s attractive Cooper (named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2011) up there on stage, but we see the Elephant Man. Clint Ramos designs the Victorian garb to remind us of the uptight, layered society in which Merrick lives.

The slides used in the performance, with the help of projection and expert lighting design (Timothy R. Mackabee, who also is scenic designer, and Philip S. Rosenberg, respectively), are actual photographs of Merrick taken by Dr. Treves in 1880. Additional mood is set by John Gromada’s original music and sound design as hospital curtains are drawn across the stage to change scenes. They are a constant reminder that Merrick, though in much better conditions, still is a subject of study and that society has a hard time accepting what it doesn’t understand.

As Merrick settles in, enjoying baths to lessen the odors of his flesh, and building a model of St. Phillip’s Church (still on display at the hospital), a strong friendship develops between patient and doctor. Treves works to bring in other people, especially women, to interact with Merrick. Mrs. Sandwich (Kathryn Meisle) thinks she is up to the task after having nursed unfortunates on missions trips, but finds she can’t deal with Merrick’s deformities. Treves finds success when he introduces a renowned actress and queen of London’s society, Mrs. Kendal (a delightful Patricia Clarkson who manages to steal some scenes). She throws herself into playing a role, but finds herself genuinely drawn to Merrick as a friend and as a man.

Merrick has an unshakable faith in God and in his salvation. He has some intelligent conversations with Bishop Walsham How (also played by Heald) and becomes the toast of society with royalty begging for an audience with him. While Merrick blossoms into his own person and enjoys as “normal” a life as he ever has known, the disease continues its progression, however. Pomerance’s play tells the moving story of Merrick, his courage and incredible outlook while making intelligent comment on society, both Victorian and modern.

Cooper’s astonishing performance is strenuous as he contorts his body into the misshapen man, walks with a limp and speaks with a slur. Clarkson is absolutely charming. They make a dynamic stage duo. My only complaint is that it sometimes was difficult to hear. Some dialogue should not be missed:
“Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams. . . do you know what happens when dreams cannot get out?”

Otherwise, The Elephant Man is one of the most enjoyable two hours of the season. It runs through Feb. 22 at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th St., NYC. Performances are Tuesday and Thursday at 7 pm; Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm with some scheduling changes planned. Tickets $99 - $169:

Christians might also like to know:
-- Nudity

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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