Thursday, April 11, 2024

Water for Elephants (Imperial Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This musical adaptation of Sara Gruen’s 2006 best-selling novel (also the basis for a 2011 film) is a capital example of Broadway showmanship at its best. A catchy score by the Pigpen Theatre Co. collective, lively choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll, some spectacular acrobatics seamlessly integrated, artful puppetry, and fine performances enhance an absorbing, if familiar, love-triangle narrative. 

Everything holds together beautifully under the masterful direction of Jessica Stone who here has taken on a far more complex endeavor than her last, the relatively small-scale “Kimberly Akimbo.” This is a far bigger, more elaborate show. 

The musical had its premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre where it opened to positive reviews. (In fact, the couple seated next to me had seen it there, and loved it so much they wanted to experience it again. They were not disappointed.)

Rick Elice’s book starts with the elderly protagonist Mr. Jankowski (Gregg Edelman) -- about to go  AWOL from his nursing home -- relating his life story to workers at a circus. He tells how, as young Jacob during the Depression (here played by Grant Gustin), he had joined the (fictional) Bengali Brothers circus as a veterinarian following the devastating death of his parents in a car crash. 

August (Paul Alexander Nolan), the hard-boiled circus owner/ringmaster hires him after learning that he had some training, if not degree, in that field. Jacob soon becomes attracted to August’s wife, the horse trainer and rider Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), though he initially sublimates his feelings. 

After the death of Marlena’s horse from overwork, the circus takes on an elephant as its star attraction. Rosie, as she’s called, is introduced to us very artfully in sections -- a leg, a trunk -- before we finally see its full form (embodied by four puppeteers). The excellent puppet design here (which also includes an orangutan and lion) is the work of Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman, and Camille LaBarre.

But awed reference in the latter-day scenes to a legendary stampede in 1931 clues us in to more trouble ahead. Meanwhile, the growing comradeship among Jacob, Marlena, and August eventually leads to domestic tension when August senses the others’ growing attachment, inevitable given August’s short fuse temper and abusive tendencies. 

It’s good to see Edelman back on Broadway in a major role, in fine vocal and dramatic estate. His character doesn’t drop out when the flashback narrative begins. Gustin is just as good in his Broadway debut, and the two share acting honors. The always reliable Nolan is also splendid, and plays the good/bad duality of his part most skillfully, while McCalla is warmly sympathetic as the conflicted heroine. 

The other circus workers -- tough guy Wade (Wade McCollum), wise-cracking Barbara (Sara Gettelfinger), alcoholic Camel (Stan Brown), and caustic clown Walter (Joe De Paul) -- are each finely characterized, and major assets to the show’s appeal. 

The acrobats are uniformly spectacular. Antoine Boissereau has a particularly fine and poignant sequence on silks as the ailing horse. Elsewhere, the high-flying stunts are beautifully melded with the dramatic action and choreography. The second act opening production number, “Zostań,” being a prime example.

All the circus elements are authentically executed (Shana Carroll is credited with “circus design”). But Takeshi Kata’s set design, David Israel Reynoso’s costumes, Bradley King’s lighting, Walter Trarbach ‘s sound, and David Bengali’s projections all contribute to an eye and ear-filling sensory experience.

Pigpen Theatre Co.’s score, orchestrated by Daryl Waters, Benedict Braxton-Smith and August Eriksmoen, is tuneful and period perfect. Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Benedict Braxton-Smith share music supervision and arrangements credit, and together they’ve created a satisfying earful.  

(Imperial Theatre, 249 W 45th Street; or 212.239.6200)

Photo by Matthew Murphy: (l.-r.) Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, and Grant Gustin -

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