Water for Elephants on Broadway

‘Water for Elephants’ Review: Beauty Under the Big Top

The circus-themed love story, already a novel and a movie, becomes a gorgeously imaginative Broadway musical.

By Jesse Green • March 21, 2024

Water for Elephants

NYT Critic’s Pick

First come her ears, floating like ginkgo leaves. Then, from behind a screen, her shadow appears, followed by the marvelous sound of her trumpet. Next to arrive is her disembodied trunk, with a mind of its own, snuffling out friends and enemies and food. Finally, at the end of Act I of the new musical “Water for Elephants,” she is fully assembled: Rosie, the star of the circus, big as a bus and batting her pretty eyes.

This gorgeous sequence, played out over perhaps 20 minutes, is emblematic of the many wonders awaiting audiences at the Imperial Theater, where “Water for Elephants” opened on Thursday. After all, Rosie is not a living creature potentially vulnerable to abuse. Nor is she a C.G.I. illusion. She is not really an illusion at all, in the sense of a trick; you can see the puppeteers operating and inhabiting her. Rather she is a product of the human imagination, including ours in the audience.

What a pleasure it is to be treated that way by a brand-extension musical, a form usually characterized by craftlessness and cynicism. Indeed, at its best, “Water for Elephants” has more in common with the circus arts than it does with by-the-books Broadway. Sure, it features an eventful story and compelling characters, and apt, rousing music by PigPen Theater Co., a seven-man indie folk collective. But in the director Jessica Stone’s stunning, emotional production, it leads with movement, eye candy and awe.

That’s only appropriate, given the milieu. The musical’s book by Rick Elice, based not just on the 2011 movie but also on the 2006 novel by Sara Gruen, is set among the performers and roustabouts of a ramshackle circus at the depths of the Depression. Escaping an unhappiness we learn about only later, Jacob Jankowski (Grant Gustin) jumps onto a train heading (as his introductory song tells us) “Anywhere.” But really, because the train houses the failing Benzini Brothers troupe, it’s heading everywhere — downhill and fast.

Water For Elephants

Elice has smartly sped up the action by eliminating one of the two introductory devices that kept the movie’s story at a distance. In the one he retains, a much older Jacob (Gregg Edelman) serves as the narrator of the long-ago events. With pride but also anguish he recalls how, as a young man trained as a veterinarian, he quickly established himself in the chaotic and sometimes violent company of the circus: a hunky James Herriot caring for the medical needs of the animals. Soon, though, he becomes involved in more complicated, dangerous ways.

The complication comes in the form of Marlena, the circus’s star attraction, who performs on horseback. The danger comes from her husband, August, Benzini’s possibly bipolar owner and ringmaster.

How we are introduced to them, and the central conflict, is typical of the production’s theatrical intelligence. First we find Marlena (Isabelle McCalla) tending to Silver Star, her beautiful white stallion, who is clearly in pain. Silver Star is played by two acrobats: Antoine Boissereau operating the head and mane, and Keaton Hentoff-Killian trailing with silks that suggest the body. Jacob, watching Marlena caress and calm the creature with a lovely lullaby called “Easy,” begins to fall in love with her. He also realizes that the horse needs weeks of rest if it’s to survive at all.

But when August (Paul Alexander Nolan) enters the scene, the temperature changes. As he argues that he cannot afford to lose Silver Star even for a day, we see that his hardheadedness and jealousy will put him in danger of losing Marlena as well. The triangle plot is thus established without having to be named, and so is the interconnectedness of love and loss that will emerge as the story’s theme. That theme is then turned wrenchingly poignant as Silver Star’s soul flies up from his body in the form of Boissereau’s aerial act.

The entire show moves in a similar fashion, somehow both concerted and Cubist. Nothing serves just one purpose, including the circus acts; whether hammer throwing or wire walking, they are striking in themselves and also narratively expressive. Watching them we understand, as the story requires, that danger is everywhere, but they also imply the possibility of rescue: Acrobats drop from heights but land as lightly as paper planes.

One reason this works so well is that Elice’s book, especially in the first act, trusts the audience to live with (and profit from) a certain amount of uncertainty. Stepping away from the musical theater handbook, he delivers information not when you expect it but when it serves an underlying emotional logic.

He also steps away more literally, letting the design and movement elements take precedence: the puppetry (by Ray Wetmore & JR Goodman and Camille Labarre), the choreography (Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll), the circus acts (Carroll again) and the design (sets by Takeshi Kata, costumes by David Israel Reynoso, lighting by Bradley King, sound by Walter Trarbach, projections by David Bengali). They really have to be credited en masse because, as sewn together by Stone’s direction, there are no seams between their disciplines.

Stone’s emotionally vivid but not especially visual approach to the staging of “Kimberly Akimbo” — the winner of last year’s Tony Award for best musical — did not prepare me for her work on “Water for Elephants.” You could easily follow the story (if not the characters’ sometimes muddy motivations) even if you didn’t understand English; indeed, I sometimes didn’t because the words, though excitingly sung, are too often mushy. Despite some backloaded, pro forma power ballads, PigPen’s tunes are ideally suited to the setting, but their trenchant lyrics might be more intelligible if they rhymed more accurately.

Still, the songs ace the double-duty test, never repeating catchy choruses just to drill holes in our ears but to expand, modify and turn ideas in different directions. The actors do much the same, playing the full range of their characters’ contradictions, not planting themselves at some bland midpoint. Treated that way, Nolan’s August is a more compelling character than a précis might suggest, and McCalla makes Marlena’s devotion to him as palpable and powerful as her revulsion.

But there are really no weak links. Gustin is dashing and suitably anguished. Edelman dries up what could be the damp narrator role without resorting to too much twinkle. (One glitch: It’s hard to see how the younger and older Jacobs align.) And the supporting roles are all filled with piquant performers (Sara Gettelfinger, Stan Brown, Wade McCollum) who are credibly circuslike, except for one strange anomaly: The clown (Joe De Paul) is actually funny.

Well, miracles do happen, even on Broadway. In building such a huge and heart-filling musical one image at a time, the creators of “Water for Elephants” have disproved the old circus adage behind the title, which holds that you can never deliver enough sustenance for a creature so large and thirsty. Apparently, you can.

Water for Elephants
At the Imperial Theater, Manhattan; waterforelephantsthemusical.com.

Running time 2 hours 40 minutes.

Jesse Green is the chief theater critic for The Times. He writes reviews of Broadway, Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway, regional and sometimes international productions. More about Jesse Green

Photos by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade