Reviews

Water For Elephants ***

By: Isa Goldberg

April 4, 2024: Known for their crafty storytelling, and several albums, Pigpen Theatre Co.’s new musical, Water for Elephants, is an adaptation of Sarah Gruen’s titular novel, that later became a popular film. It’s just the kind of coming of age story that the company has mastered in such works, as The Old Man and The Old Moon. 

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

By: Isa Goldberg

April 4, 2024: Known for their crafty storytelling, and several albums, Pigpen Theatre Co.’s new musical, Water for Elephants, is an adaptation of Sarah Gruen’s titular novel, that later became a popular film. It’s just the kind of coming of age story that the company has mastered in such works, as The Old Man and The Old Moon. 

In that 2012 Off Broadway production, Pigpen aptly demonstrated their affinity for barns, singing, clowning, and swinging to a uke, and a banjo. While their earlier productions on significantly smaller stages, used the crudest, most primitive of stage craft, and trickery, this new show at Broadway’s Imperial Theater, is considerably more polished. 

Grant Gustin, Stan Brown and cast.

In terms of production values, it’s a far cry from the poor theater of their roots, when they built sets in real time, and threw in whatever elements were available to them. That the show stands out by paying homage to those primitive theatrical elements, while others soar with top-tier technology, merits distinction.

To Rick Elice (Jersey Boys), who wrote this adaptation, the notion of seeking adventure is obviously well suited. The show’s tempo and pacing, continually push the action just over the edge, so the scenes follow quickly, and seamlessly. After all, it’s about running away to join the circus; it’s episodic. There isn’t much time to think. 

Still, as narrative, the musical’s book doesn’t offer a lot of grounding to the excitement of circus life. Mostly, the audience sees a series of scenes about it, its performers, managers, and employees. The stage craft ignites with these excellent performers, and the performers ignite with each other, and the puppets. But it’s missing the glue. 

The Cast of “Water For Elephants“.

Framed as a memory play, an elderly Jacob (Greg Edelman) recalls his youth in the circus taking care of the animals, as a veterinarian. And when the puppet animals are center stage, the show works. But the flimsy plot consists of tossing off a few central memories as a way of telling a story. Such subtle dialogue, as “Omigod, the Benzini Stampede! That’s like the greatest disaster in circus history!” clearly tells the audience what lies ahead. 

Fortunately, that scene takes off with wild antics, as the animal puppets run for dear life. With humans chasing, it winds up in a crescendo of panic, and mass destruction. It’s that energy that also runs through the orchestrations (Daryl Waters, Benedict Braxton-Smith, and August Eriksmoen) swooshing the movement of scenes, like riding a wave.

Marissa Rosen, Sara Gettelfinger, Taylor Colleton and Grant Gustin in Water For Elephants.

Sadly, the lyrics don’t do much more than fill the time. “Runnin’ from your troubles/well there ain’t no easy way,” is a trite refrain, especially when it speaks to the hero’s mission.

With the blend of folk, country western, folk and pop melodies, the music is supposed to feel downright corny. But when the romantic tuners are also predictable, the show falls short.

Not so the performers, who are outstanding.

As Jacob the elder, who looks back on his life of the circus, Greg Edelman looks and feels right at home. After all, he has a lot to look back on – this is his 16th Broadway show. Watching him is transporting. 

Grant Gustin

In the role of young Jacob, Grant Gustin has a mellifluous voice, and truly the presence of a matinee idol. It’s a surpassing Broadway debut. As the object of his romantic vision, Isabelle McCalla is a versatile actor, singer, and dancer. While literally outsized by the other actors and puppets,  she carries most of the show. And as the circus master himself, Paul Alexander Nolan captures the tragedy of a man driven to succeed and go beyond.

However, at the center of it all is Rosie the elephant, played by the four puppeteers  Caroline Kane, Paul Castree, Michael Mendez, and Charles South. Also in the role of Silver Star, a horse of feline grace, Antoine Boissereau delivers a most unusual interpretation that is ethereal.  To support this animal circus, the cast of spectacular, enormous, sometimes ragged, and often tawdry puppets, are designed by Ray Wetmore, & JR Goodman, and Camille Labarre.

Directed by Jessica Stone with an eye to theatrical integrity, the production admirably embraces the fundamental joy of making theater. Choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll keeps the show on track…running to the circus. And running with these invigorating performers is quite the gag. 

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