Boy was I wrong!
From the moment he steps on stage, as Dr. Treves shows us photos of the real Joseph Merrick (called John by many), Mr. Cooper transforms in front of our eyes without make-up, words, or much of a costume on his body. It is pure acting and this actor tackles this role head on with such gusto, he had me in the palm of his over-sized hand. I was moved to tears a few times from Mr. Merrick's plight. The fact that I forgot I was watching a movie star on stage is a testament to what Mr. Cooper is doing nightly in this role that he originally played at Williamstown.
Director Scott Ellis has made a name for himself with both musicals and plays on Broadway and keeps this show moving at a fast pace. So much that Act 1 is over before we even know it. Beautiful costumes, simple lighting and sets (all moved by a well-oiled ensemble) ground us in the late 1800s. The entire cast assembled work as a wonderful ensemble (including the delicious Anthony Heald and multi-talented Scott Lowell) in this show full of outsiders all wanting a piece of the MAN.
I would be remiss to not mention the wonder that is Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola as the actress Mrs. Kendal who tears down the walls that surround Merrick and the doctor who takes him under his wing as a family member. Both care for Merrick in different ways and these actors give extremely powerful performances in their own right.
Knowing this is still in previews and things could change, if I had any complaint, it would be that Act II should be tightened up to match that experience that Act I rushes over us in such an extreme way. I was taken on such a journey by intermission that I wished Act II could match that same feeling. Perhaps it is the play itself or it could be director's choices, (but there were things that definitely felt different to me than what I had been used to in seeing other productions). The play originally opened on Broadway in 1979 and was revived in 2002. Some may question why a show would return just 12 years later, but after seeing it - questions should cease. Something is in the air this season with American Horror: Freak Show on TV, the musical Side Show back on Broadway and The Elephant Man all teaching a story of diversity and to not be fearful of those society shuns. Perhaps that is a lesson that we shouldn't put an expiration date on of how often a story should be told.
Usually I would not write a review for a show that is still in previews - but I want those reading to know they need to grab up tickets BEFORE it opens and reviews come out. If you can get tickets before this limited run ends February 15, 2015 - do yourself a favor and do it NOW to experience real love. By that, I mean Mr. Cooper's love of the character he is playing and the love you will feel for the man that society had pushed aside.