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Broadway Reviews

Water for Elephants

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 21, 2024

Water for Elephants. Book by Rick Elice. Music and lyrics by PigPen Theatre Co.. Based on the novel by Sara Gruen. Directed by Jessica Stone. Music supervision and arrangements by Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Benedict Braxton-Smith. Circus design by Shana Carroll. Choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll. Scenic design by Takeshi Kata. Costume design by David Israel Reynoso. Lighting design by Bradley King. Sound design by Walter Trarbach. Projection design by David Bengali. Hair and wig design by Campbell Young Associates. Puppet design by Ray Wetmore & JR Goodman, and Camille Labarre. Orchestrations by Daryl Waters, Benedict Braxton-Smith, and August Eriksmoen. Music director Elizabeth Doran. Music coordinator Kristy Norter. Associate director Ryan Emmons. Associate choreographer Paige Parkhill. Associate circus designer Brin Schoellkopf. Fight director Cha Ramos.
Cast: Grant Gustin, Isabelle McCalla, Gregg Edelman, Paul Alexander Nolan, Stan Brown, Joe De Paul, Sara Gettelfinger, Wade McCollum, Eric Bates, Brandon Block, Antoine Boissereau, Rachel Boyd, Paul Castree, Ken Wulf Clark, Taylor Colleton, Gabriel Olivera de Paula Costa, Isabella Luisa Diaz, Samantha Gershman, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Nicolas Jelmoni, Caroline Kane, Harley McLeish, Michael Mendez, Samuel Renaud, Marissa Rosen, Alexandra Gaelle Royer, Asa Somers, Charles South, Sean Stack, Matthew Varvar, and Michelle West.
Theater: Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, and Grant Gustin
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Ladies and gentlemen!!! Children of all ages!!! Feast your eyes on the center (and only) ring, where you will witness feats of wonder the likes of which have never been seen before!!! Welcome one and all to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth!!! And welcome, too, to Water for Elephants, the new circus-themed musical opening tonight at the Imperial Theatre, where, despite its timeworn plot, you will be met with such thrilling stagecraft that it hardly matters.

Like Pinot Grigio and oysters, circuses and theatre make for an apposite pairing, and certainly this is far from the first show to recognize it. To cite a few instances in which the big top has moved indoors, there's Billy Rose's Jumbo from 1935, Barnum from 1980, and the Pippin revival from 2013. Jumbo managed a respectable run of 233 performance and was notable for featuring a live elephant on stage, while Barnum (854 performances) and Pippin (709 performances) picked up 20 Tony nominations and seven wins between them.

Will Water for Elephants rise to that level amid the gazillion openings during these packed final weeks of this theatre season? Ticket sales are seldom predictable, of course, but owing to its eye-popping production values, there is plenty to suggest this could well be a Tony contender and a nice feather in the cap for director Jessica Stone, who helmed last season's best musical winner Kimberly Akimbo.

Adapted from Sara Gruen's romantic historical novel by the show's bookwriter Rick Elice (Peter and the Starcatcher, Jersey Boys), Water for Elephants recounts the behind-the-scenes story of life during the Great Depression for members of the unsteady enterprise called the Benzini Brothers Circus, whose name has been retained by the new owner who purchased it on the cheap because it "cost too much to paint over the signs."

Truth be told, Water for Elephants is an exemplar of style over substance, with a story that features at its core an unlikely hero, a damsel in distress, and a truly hissable villain. It also makes use of a narrative device that, coincidentally, is also being employed in another new musical playing on the same street, The Notebook, that of an older character living in a nursing home recounting his life story as it unfolds before our eyes.

The Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Yet the production is blessed with such an abundance of style, including a delightfully eclectic score by PigPen Theatre Co., thrillingly choreographed acrobatic feats that complement the tale, memorable characters, and imaginative puppetry, that it is easy to overlook any hoary plotting and just get swept up in the allure of it all. Besides, the hero of Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski (played as his older self by Gregg Edelman and as a young man by Grant Gustin), has one thing the character of Noah in The Notebook does not have, a story that sings to the romantic in all of us: running away to join the circus.

Actually, the circus is the last thing on Jacob's mind when he leaves home and takes to the road after his parents are killed in a car accident. With nowhere in particular to go, he hops a train, which, fortuitously, is carrying the human and animal cargo that make up the Benzini Brothers enterprise. Jacob, who has training as a veterinarian, is quickly hired to patch up the menagerie of underfed and ill-treated animals by the owner and ringmaster, the charismatic and, as we soon learn, dangerously brutal August (Paul Alexander Nolan, giving a mesmerizing performance).

August is married to the equestrian Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), whose featured act with the horse Silver Star comes to an abrupt end when Jacob can no longer keep the injured and suffering animal alive and must put it down. The death of the horse, told through song, puppetry, and a breathtaking aerial ballet performance by Antoine Boissereau, is a singularly stunning moment in the show, making us wish we had seen more of Marlena and Silver Star working together prior to the sad incident. But soon a replacement arrives in the form of a most remarkable animal, an elephant by the name of Rosie, purchased from yet another circus that has gone belly-up.

Between August's increasingly out-of-control cruelty and the amount of time that Jacob and Marlena spend together to get Rosie ready for the spotlight, it's not hard to guess the direction of the plot turn. Yet even as a new dawning of love is taking hold, things will get quite ugly and violent before the dust settles. Given the intensity of Paul Alexander Nolan's performance, you might want to think about leaving the kids at home.

Much praise to Shana Carroll, co-founding artistic director of the Montreal-based circus company 7 Fingers, who is responsible for the circus design. This is the same group that provided the acrobatic work for the 2013 Pippin revival, and if anything, they've ramped up the action even more here, especially effective in combination with Carroll and Jesse Robb's choreography. Also adding much to the production are the performances by Joe De Paul as the cantankerous clown Walter, Sara Gettelfinger as the exotic dancer Barbara, Wade McCollum as August's tough-as-nails enforcer, Stan Brown as a no-longer-useful roustabout, and, of course, Rosie, the wondrous and, as it turns out, heroic pachyderm. By any measure, Water for Elephants is a spectacular display of theatrical collaboration at its best, and it should have wide appeal to kinkers and rubes alike.