Reviews BroadwayNYC Published 21 March 2024

Review: Water for Elephants at the Imperial Theatre

Imperial Theatre ⋄ February 24, 2024-open-ended

Despite some missteps in casting, this new circus musical brings the spectacle and huge visual creativity. Lorin Wertheimer reviews.

Lorin Wertheimer
The cast of <i>Water for Elephants</i>.Photo: Matthew Murphy

The cast of Water for Elephants.Photo: Matthew Murphy

One of my first Broadway experiences was Barnum, the circus-themed biography of swindler P. T. Barnum.  The musical is forgettable, but the final number, “Join the Circus” (featured prominently in the 1980 TV ad campaign), was an exhilarating bacchanal of trapeze artists, clowns, and acrobats.  Broadway’s new circus musical, Water for Elephants, takes the energy and chaos of Barnum’s finale and injects it throughout the show, offering a constant stream of acrobatic feats.  This three-ring strategy pays off; even when the musical fails to deliver on other fronts, kinetic and stunning visuals make for a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Adapted from Sara Gruen’s 2008 novel, Water for Elephants follows Jacob (Grant Gustin), a young man fleeing personal tragedy in Depression-era America who stumbles into a job as a veterinarian for the struggling Benzini Brothers circus.  When owner/ringmaster August (Paul Alexander Nolan) buys an elephant, Jacob and equestrian star Marlena (Isabelle McCalla) work together to train the new performer.  They fall in love (Jacob and Marlena, that is) but Marlene’s cruel and (arguably justifiably) jealous husband, August, works to prevent the young couple’s happily ever after.  The story is framed by a much older Jacob (a wonderfully grounded Gregg Edelman) telling his story to a couple of modern-day circus workers.

The score, composed by theatrical collective PigPen Theatre Co., is consistently good, sometimes great.  The aching harmonies of an early number, “The Road Don’t Make You Young,” evoke Depression-era balladeers like Woody Guthrie, while “Easy,” beautifully sung by Isabelle McCalla, provides the backdrop for a breathtaking aerial silk dance. They also hit the right notes with broader numbers, like the big dance number “Zostan” and the comedic “Squeaky Wheel.”

But the lyrics, also by PigPen, fall short.  Songs do little to advance the story or illuminate characters.  There is the occasional clever turn of phrase, like “You want to see something/that sets your spine tingling/Something that blows Ringling/Out of the ring?” Mostly, though, the words are forgettable.  And for all the (melo)dramatic potential, Water feels like it is going through the motions when it comes to storytelling.  I’d be hard pressed to explain what draws the lovers to each other, why some of the smaller roles exist at all, or why the writers felt this story needed to be told in this format in the first place.  One can almost hear the producers’ consternation at the lack of stakes before intermission with the act’s closing lyrics: “Comin’ round the bend / Before our show can end / It’s something better than the rest!”

Luckily, there is spectacle, and it is spectacular enough to sweep these concerns aside.  Under Jessica Stone’s assured direction (along with Shana Carroll’s circus design and choreography by Carroll and Jesse Robb), there isn’t much time to dwell on the show’s shortcomings.  The creative team merges circus and musical flawlessly.  The breathtaking acrobatics, peppered throughout, are varied and never feel gimmicky or gratuitous. And that visual creativity extends beyond the circus element.  The choreography is imaginative and at times exuberant.  Even when the entire company is on stage, everyone is working in concert.

The design elements walk the tightrope between literal and figurative, suggesting time and place without hitting us over the head.  With David Bengali’s striking and detailed projection backdrop, Takeshi Kata’s minimal sets give us just what we need to picture a circus or a train.  Lighting by Bradley King and sound from Walter Trarbach act in concert to create the sense of space—with the occasional spotlight to remind us we’re in the theater.  The puppets, designed by Ray Wetmore & JR Goodman and Camille Labarre, suggest the animals without crossing the uncanny valley; the audience is never asked to suspend disbelief but rather to embrace it.

A shout-out is due to the amazing chorus of circus performers/singers/dancers, who must have had to master new skills for the production.  The acrobats sing, the dancers juggle, and the singers work the puppets like seasoned professionals.  The talent and versatility on display is mind-boggling.  I also appreciated the deftness with which the older Jacob was woven into the action.  He floats through the story as observer and participant, in the way that the best storytellers do.

Performances are solid across the board with one notable exception.  Starting with the good, in addition to the aforementioned Edelman and McCalla, the charismatic Paul Alexander Nolan plays August with a dangerous, unpredictable edge.  And both Stan Brown and Sara Gettelfinger create memorable characters and shine in their musical solos.

Alas, the show’s star, Grant Gustin, is badly miscast as Jacob.  He sings with timidity and conveys little in the way of emotion or character.  His first song was halfway over when I realized I’d zoned out.  Try as I might to focus, I couldn’t figure what he was on about or why he was singing.  And his role is crucial; Jacob is in every scene.  Gustin does okay when he’s not singing, which makes me wonder if the songs are out of his register.  Or maybe it’s inexperience; this is his first Broadway outing.  Let’s hope he does better next time around.

Whatever its flaws, Water for Elephants is an effective argument for the singular power of theater.  The novel relies on a reader’s imagination; the 2011 film (meh) occupies the viewer’s senses but, like most movies, does not ask much of their imagination.  But this show, eschewing film’s de rigueur realism, engages both senses and imagination.  The audience must participate in the theatrical experience, completing in their minds what is suggested on stage. In this way, Water for Elephants the musical delivers an experience neither the book nor the movie can match.

Lorin Wertheimer is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Water for Elephants at the Imperial Theatre Show Info

Produced by Peter Schneider, Jennifer Costello, et. al

Directed by Jessica Stone

Written by Book: Rick Elice; music and lyrics: PigPen Theatre Co.

Choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll

Scenic Design Takeshi Kata; PROJECTION DESIGN: David Bengali; CIRCUS DESIGN: Shana Carroll; COSTUME DESIGN: David Israel Reynoso; PUPPETRY DESIGN: Ray Wetmore & JR Goodman and Camille Labarre

Lighting Design Bradley King

Sound Design Walter Trarbach

Cast includes Antoine Boissereau, Stan Brown, Paul Castree, Taylor Colleton, Gabriel Olivera de Paula Costa, Joe De Paul, Isabella Luisa Diaz, Gregg Edelman, Sara Gettelfinger, Grant Gustin, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Nicolas Jelmoni, Caroline Kane, Isabelle McCalla, Paul Alexander Nolan, Samuel Renaud, Alexandra Gaelle Royer, Matthew Varvar

Original Music PigPen Theatre Co.

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 2 hours 40 minutes


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