Reviews

Water For Elephants ****

By: Paulanne Simmons

March 31, 2024: In a theater season that has been rather sedate, the new musical, Water for Elephants comes as a welcome shot in the arm. Like so many other recent Broadway offerings, Water for Elephants is based on a novel (a 2006 historical romance by Canadian-American author Sara Gruen) that was later turned into a film (a 2011 romantic drama starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz and Hal Holbrook). But in this case the printed word translates equally well to both stage and screen.

Grant Gustin

By: Paulanne Simmons

March 31, 2024: In a theater season that has been rather sedate, the new musical, Water for Elephants comes as a welcome shot in the arm. Like so many other recent Broadway offerings, Water for Elephants is based on a novel (a 2006 historical romance by Canadian-American author Sara Gruen) that was later turned into a film (a 2011 romantic drama starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz and Hal Holbrook). But in this case the printed word translates equally well to both stage and screen.

The musical focusses on the fate of a rundown circus barely scraping by during the Great Depression. It is this setting that has allowed director Jessica Stone and scenic designer Takeshi Kata to turn the stage at the Imperial Theatre into a circus arena, complete with acrobats, dancers (choreography  by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll), animals (puppetry by Ray Wetmore & JR Goodman and Camille Labarre), clowns and all the colorful characters that are so attractive to children and incurable romantics.

The Cast of Water For Elephants.

The story is narrated by the elderly Jacob Jankowski (Gregg Edelman), who has escaped his nursing home to spend a day at the circus. As a young man, Jacob (Grant Gustin) hopped a train taking the Benzini Brothers Circus to its next destination. When August (Paul Alexander Nolan), the violent and ruthless ringmaster, discovers  Jacob is almost a veterinarian (having skipped out of school before taking his final exams), Jacob is hired as the circus vet at three dollars a day. 

In the circus he meets a variety of interesting characters: Walter, the clown (Joe de Paul); Barbara, the exotic dancer (Sara Gettelfinger); Wade, August’s tough right-hand-man (Wade McCollum); and Camel, the alcoholic roustabout (Stan Brown). He also meets the beautiful Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), August’s wife, who performs with Silver Star, a beloved but dying horse. 

Marissa Rosen, Gregg Edelman, Taylor Colleton, Sara Gettelfinger, Joe De Paul, and Stan Brown.

When Silver Star is put down (an aerial ballet exquisitely performed by Antoine Boissereau with the help of a hanging rope), Jacob buys Rosie the elephant from a disbanded circus. Rosie seems untrainable until it’s discovered that Rosie, like Jacob, speaks Polish. Rosie and Marlena’s act saves the circus but not August and Marlena’s marriage, as Jacob becomes an increasingly desirable alternative to August’s brutality.

In many ways, Rosie is not only the star of the circus; she is the star of Water for Elephants. First, we see her ears, then her trunk, manipulated by able puppeteers. Finally we see her legs planted firmly on the ground. And Rosie appears in all her weighty glory. 

Grant Gustin, Stan Brown and cast.

But the show has other highlights. Pigpen Theatre Co has created a score effectively combining rock, folk and glitzy cabaret music that brings Kander and Ebbs’ greatest songs to mind. And Rick Elice’s book, although a little slow to get off the ground, provides the structure for all the razzamatazz that will most likely make this musical a hit.

Water for Elephants is a show all about showmanship. Notwithstanding the passion of the actors, Jacob and Melena’s romance is not particularly compelling. And August is a standard villain. But who will forget the doe-eyed Rosie or the dying Silver Star?

Water for Elephants ****
MPERIAL THEATRE
249 West 45th Street
(between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
New York, NY 10036
Photography: Mathew Murphy