Dazzling circus arts, ferocious conflicts, and abiding love in ‘Water for Elephants’ at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre

Part spectacle, part love story, part behind-the-scenes exposé, and fully captivating through it all, the new musical adaptation of Water for Elephants, now in its Broadway premiere at the Imperial Theatre, tells the story of a young man who jumps a moving train and joins a traveling circus after losing his parents and home during the Great Depression. Based on the eponymous bestselling novel by Sara Gruen (which also inspired the 2011 film of the same name), the show, with a book by Rick Elice and a score by PigPen Theatre Co., is punctuated with dazzling scenes of acrobatics, clowning, and animal acts, with a circus design by Shana Carroll (co-founding artistic director of the Montreal-based contemporary circus company Les 7 doigts de la main), puppetry by Ray Wetmore & JR Goodman and Camille Labarre, and enough thrills to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Grant Gustin (upper right) and the cast. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Presented in the format of a go-back story, an older Jacob Jankowski, confined to a nursing home but out by himself to see the circus that’s come to town, shares the memories of his youth with Charlie and June, two members of its current team. Under the fluid direction of Jessica Stone, the narrative moves back and forth between his two ages, as he recounts his recollections and envisions in dream sequences and reenactments the ragtag rousts, spectacular performers (aka “kinkers”), and beloved animals he met and the life-changing experiences he had when he took the leap onto the train and was hired by August, the volatile owner and ringmaster of the Benzini Brothers Circus, as the company’s veterinarian (having almost completed his degree at Cornell when the tragedy struck his family). The job opened up a new life of excitement, love, and conflict, and a ride he longs to return to in his senior years.

The cast. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

A rousing cast of thirty features a combination of triple threats from the theater and daredevil circus artists, whose talents balance each other and fuse the narrative together with electrifying emotion and exhilarating physicality. The exciting choreography by Jesse Robb and Carroll ranges from scenes of the crew pitching the big-top tent while tossing and juggling sledgehammers, jumping ropes, climbing scaffolding, soaring through the air, flipping and springing above the stage; the kinkers flawlessly executing their routines on aerial silks, hoops, tightropes, and trapeze (with one stunning feat of flying beyond the stage and over the audience); and members of the company puppeteering Queenie the dog, the ailing horse Silver Star (with natural movements of the head and shakes of the mane), the new star attraction Rosie the elephant (who bonds with her loving rider Marlena and caregiver Jacob, responding to his commands in Polish, but rebels against the abusive August), the toothless lion Rex (who initially bites Jacob’s arm), Agnes the Orangutan, and the other animals in the show.

The company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Along with the amazing spectacle and the story of the characters’ efforts to try to save the financially floundering circus from bankruptcy and closure is the love triangle of August, his wife Marlena, and Jacob, and the explosive anger and deadly events it triggers. Grant Gustin stars as the sensitive, knowledgeable, and caring young Jacob, Gregg Edelman as his older reflective self, Isabelle McCalla as Marlena, who shares his love of animals and growing romantic attraction, and a convincingly hateful Paul Alexander Nolan as August, whose egomaniacal personality, unyielding control, and violent outbursts have dire consequences for the circus, its workers, and himself (with portentous fight direction by Cha Ramos).

Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, and Grant Gustin. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

They are supported by the terrific company of carnies (Antoine Boissereau, Paul Castree, Gabriel Olivera de Paula Costa, Isabella Luisa Diaz, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Nicolas Jelmoni, Caroline Kane, Michael Mendez, Samuel Renaud, Alexandra Gaelle Royer, Asa Somers, Charles South, Sean Stack, and Matthew Varvar) and the outstanding featured cast of Sara Gettelfinger as the unrestrained Barbara, Marissa Rosen as Sue, and Taylor Colleton as Vera (the three women who comprise “Barbara and her Bally Broads” and work the “The Cooch Tent”), Joe De Paul as the clown Walter, who performs a funny knife act with the ringmaster, Stan Brown as the aging and hobbling Camel, who welcomes and supports Jacob to the very end, and Wade McCollum as the strongman Wade, paid by August, in the midst of the Depression, to throw the people he no longer wants off the train. Literally.

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

PigPen’s music (with music supervision and arrangements by Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Benedict Braxton-Smith, orchestrations by Daryl Waters, Braxton-Smith, and August Eriksmoen, and music direction by Elizabeth Doran) encompasses an array of genres, from the lively country-western-style “The Road Don’t Make You Young,” to the heartrending “Easy,” sung by the devoted Marlena to the suffering Silver Star, to the honky-tonk blockbuster “The Lion Has Got No Teeth,” with August proudly proclaiming all the “lies, lies, lies” that constitute the circus acts and scam the gullible audience.

A transporting artistic design, with a set by Takeshi Kata of rolling scaffolds and walls, ladders, tents, curtains, and Benzini Brothers posters, seamlessly takes us from the train to the circus and the other locales of the story, with background projections by David Bengali, and lighting by Bradley King that shifts with the times of day, the moods, and Jacob’s dreamlike visions of the past. Walter Trarbach’s sound captures the familiar cries of the animals, and costumes by David Israel Reynoso, with hair and makeup by Luc Verschuren for Campbell Young Associates, distinguish between the colorful glittering style of the ringmaster and kinkers and the basic work clothes of the rousts, between the Depression era and the more recent times of the elder Jacob.

The smashing Broadway debut of Water for Elephants is highly entertaining and emotionally affecting, delivered by a “tip-top” cast, director, and design team that kept me enthralled in its perfect synthesis of theater and the circus. If you’re a fan of either, or of both, don’t miss it.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 35 minutes, including an intermission.

Water for Elephants plays through Sunday, September 8, 2024, at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $99-299, including fees), call (212) 239-6200, or go online.

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