Reviews

Water For Elephants *****

By: Samuel L. Leiter

March 30, 2024: Pop quiz: two recently opened Broadway musicals include the following: 1) a heartwarming story in which an elderly man, living in a facility, has good reason to look back on his youth; 2) the old man recalls falling in love with a lovely young woman; 3) after overcoming big obstacles, the lovers marry and share their lives for half a century; 4) the old gent views his memories acted out as he steps into them beside his younger self. Name the shows.

The Cast of “Water For Elephants”.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

March 30, 2024: Pop quiz: two recently opened Broadway musicals include the following: 1) a heartwarming story in which an elderly man, living in a facility, has good reason to look back on his youth; 2) the old man recalls falling in love with a lovely young woman; 3) after overcoming big obstacles, the lovers marry and share their lives for half a century; 4) the old gent views his memories acted out as he steps into them beside his younger self. Name the shows.

The answer, my friend, in case you need it, is the schmaltzy The Notebook and the breathtaking Water for Elephants, the first noteworthy mainly for its blanket of sentimentality—the hero’s aged wife suffers from dementia—and the second for being set in the world of the circus, allowing remarkable production values to take the show way beyond its innate emotionality. The latter show presents only two versions of its hero—old and young—but if, as in The Notebook, there were three, the similarities might almost be actionable. Other musicals, of course, have used similar structural tropes.

Isabelle McCalla & Grant Gustin.

The endearingly entertaining Water for Elephants, produced for a staggering $25 million, follows a substantial history of Broadway musicals set among the colorful circus denizens of roustabouts, acrobats, animals, and clowns, like Barnum, Jumbo, Carnival, and others noted here. Based on a bestselling 2006 historical romance novel by Sara Gruen and its popular 2011 film adaptation, it premiered last year at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, under Jessica Stone’s inspired direction. It’s now turning dazzling somersaults—both on stage and in playgoers’ hearts—at the Imperial Theatre in a captivating production with a delightful score by the seven-member collective called the PigPen Theatre Co. (The Old Man and the Old Moon).

Rick Elice’s faithfully rendered adaptation of Gruen’s big top romance begins with the aging Jacob (“Jake”) Jankowski (a first-rate Gregg Edelman) having wandered from his home’s nurses and companions into the enchantment of a circus tent whose employees are preparing for a show. Jake worked for the Benzini Brothers Circus early in the Depression, in 1931, when it went out of business following a legendary animal stampede. His visit to the big top brings him into contact with two circus workers, Charlie and June, played by the equally impressive Paul Alexander Nolan (Jesus Christ Superstar) and Isabelle McCalla (Shucked), who will soon play the show’s two other leads.

Joe De Paul and Paul Alexander Nolan.

No sooner does old Jake begin to recite his sawdust memories to the fascinated couple than we’re  transported back to 1931, when young Jake (the handsome Grant Gustin in a terrific Broadway debut) is a 23–year-old veterinary school drop-out, having left Cornell after his parents’ death in a car crash. His finances crushed, he hops a freight train carrying a touring circus troupe to its next destination. The train is cleverly represented by what resemble rolling scaffold units, which also serve multiple other purposes in the action.

Challenged by an aggressive roustabout named Wade (Wade McCollum, an imposing presence), Jake shows his manly mettle. Before long, he’s befriended by an ailing old circus hand, Camel (veteran Stan Brown, making a fine Broadway bow) and a cooch dancer named Barbara (Sara Gettelfinger, yet another standout). He’s threatened though by the diminutive, knife-throwing clown, Walter (Joe De Paul, an actual clown). 

Marissa Rosen, Sara Gettelfinger, Taylor Colleton and Grant Gustin.

Jake signs on for a day’s work under ringmaster/circus owner August (Nolan), who proudly boasts in the spirited “The Lion Has Got no Teeth” about the lies his show purveys. Jake’s job is to look after the show’s menagerie, which gives the show its title, an old circus euphemism for an impossible task assigned to a naïve new worker. His animal skills and knowledge extend his employment, although August is prone to mistreat his beasts to save money. 

When Silver Star—the white stallion ridden in a top-billed act by August’s wife, Marlena (McCalla)—has a medical problem, August insists that that the suffering animal keep performing. That becomes impossible and, Jake, whose feelings for Marlena are becoming apparent, must put the animal down, which leads the mercurial August to seek Jake’s punishment. (McCalla, by the way, is a physical and musical knockout who sings one of her songs while cavorting on a trapeze!).

Grant Gustin, Stan Brown and cast.

Desperately needing a replacement act, August purchases Rosie, a seemingly stubborn Asian elephant whose recalcitrance incites August’s cruelty. Jake, however, discovers the pachyderm’s responsiveness to Polish commands, trains her, and she and Marlena become a moneymaking hit. August’s jealous abuse of Marlena, though, leads her to run off with Jake, an escapade that ends in violence, with Marlena forcibly brought back to the circus. Eventually, August’s sadistic, even murderous, behavior leads to the caged animals being released, destroying the show and sending us back to the present, when Jake brings his life up to date. Now considered circus royalty, he happily rejoins the circus.

The story, conventional as it is, has sufficient thrills and chills with its fateful triangle of sadistic ringmaster, exquisite circus star, and innocent young lover, but nothing in it is as compelling as the circus world conjured up by set designer Takeshi Kata (with “circus design” by Shana Carroll), costumer David Israel Reynoso, lighting designer Bradley King, and projection designer David Bengali, all of it brought to startling life by a large cast featuring numerous world-class “kinkers” (circus performers). The remarkable thing is that, for all the expense, the circus we see never overwhelms with décor, but seems appropriately modest as befits its constrained circumstances. 

Grant Gustin

The extraordinary performers fly through the air with the greatest of ease, get tossed about like beach balls, twirl from ropes like flags in the wind, and do variations on all the familiar circus skills you’ve seen before but never as perfectly integrated as here into Broadway-style choreography to tell a touching story. Kudos to the creative genius of co-choreographers Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll, she the cofounding artistic director of the 7 Fingers aerial collective. One of the most beautiful moments comes when the soul of the euthanized Silver Star is depicted by Antoine Boissereau rising and falling in a series of dangerously dramatic movements on a long white stream of silk hanging from the flies.

And then there are the awesome puppets standing in for the animals (including the horseequation.pdf, many employing large headpieces. Most memorable, of course, is the full-sized Rosie, sometimes represented by only a single body part, like her trunk or a huge leg, sometimes only by her shadow, but mainly by her hulking gray presence clomping majestically along, manipulated by several puppeteers.

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

PigPen’s score may not rival Broadway’s classics, but it’s satisfactorily tuneful, reflecting the story and characters, and generally capturing the spirit of the times depicted. Now and then, when reliance on the book takes over, especially in Act Two, the show lags a bit, but these passages are brief and it’s not long before the three-ring excitement returns and the show once more holds us in its grip as firmly as the acrobats do the partners whose bodies they so ably swing around. 

A herd of elephants, we’re told, is called a memory. If you see Water for Elephants I guarantee you’ll take away plenty of those.

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