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Water for Elephants

The hard-working cast makes both the human characters and the animals memorable while telling a story where the tension rises as the plot builds to its devastating climax.

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The cast of the new musical “Water for Elephants” at the Imperial Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

Playwright/bookwriter Rick Elice has written the greatest jukebox musical (so far) in his 2005 Jersey Boys. In his adaptation of Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel Water for Elephants, he may just have written the best stage musical about circuses by making the animals as real as the human characters. The indie folk band Pigpen Theatre Co. has written a varied collection of songs, ingeniously orchestrated, that are always exciting as they both forward the story and reveal the emotions of the people who sing them. However, it is director Jessica Stone assisted with circus design by Shana Carroll who has done the most inventive and original work.

Faithful to both the novel and film but following the film’s streamlining and reduction of the characters, Water for Elephants tells the story of nonagenarian Mr. Jankowski’s visit to the circus from his old age home and being asked to tell the story of his adventures back in 1931 with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a second rate circus struggling to survive at the height of the Great Depression. As he tells his story he is replaced by 23-year-old Polish-American Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student at Cornell University who drops out just before finals due to the death of his parents in a car accident and his finding himself destitute.

Isabelle McCalla as Marlena and Grant Gustin as Jacob in a scene from the new musical “Water for Elephants” at the Imperial Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Hopping on the first train out of town, he finds himself on a circus train and offers to work for just one day. However, when the owner/ringleader August Rosenbluth discovers that he has studied veterinary science, he hires him to save their star attraction Silver Star, his wife Marlena’s prize Liberty horse. When Silver Star has to be put down, the circus is desperately in need of a replacement act which comes along when the Fox Brothers Circus goes bankrupt and they obtain a 53-year-old elephant named Rosie who unfortunately does not answer to any commands. By accident, Jacob discovers that Rosie understands Polish and this saves the Benzini Brothers Circus.

The more Jacob gets to know the circus folk, the more problems he finds. August who is a paranoid schizophrenic is both abusive and possessive of his wife beautiful Marlena who stoically puts up with him and the animals. Tensions rise when Jacob falls in love with Marlena even though they try to keep it a secret from August. He also bonds with Camel, a circus veteran who has been destroyed by Jake (adulterated Jamaican ginger extract drunk during Prohibition) and clown Walter, a little person who is very possessive of his Jack Russell Terrier named Queenie. Some nights it is the job of company manager Wade to “red-line” (i.e. throw off the moving train) crew that is not working up to capacity or who have antagonized August in some way. This leads to the final disaster that brings the story to its conclusion.

Paul Alexander Nolan as August and the cast of the new musical “Water for Elephants” at the Imperial Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

The cast of the Broadway production of Water for Elephants is made up of a great many performers who are acrobats, gymnasts and aerialists who periodically get to show off their specialties. We never see a complete circus act: director Stone and circus design director Carroll keep us wanting more! The most remarkable part of the show are the animals, puppets by Ray Wetmore & JR Goodman and Camille Labarre, that are so alive you would think that they are actually breathing. Just as the circus acts are teasers, Stone and Carroll have us see pieces of Rosie, a trunk, a leg, etc., until the curtain of the first act when the huge entire elephant puppet appears. At times the animals are seen behind curtains or are silhouettes or shadows, tantalizing moments of things to come.

The cast is generally excellent. Gregg Edelman brings his long time experience and his authority to Mr. Jankowski and a wry sense of humor as the narrator who is in fact the same Jacob we are following all evening. As the younger Jacob, Grant Gustin making his Broadway debut is a bit bland, but then so was the character both in the book and the movie, the outsider through whose eyes we live the story. Isabelle McCalla as the beautiful equestrian Marlena is both feisty and resourceful and does a series of impressive circus acts herself. Paul Alexander Nolan, the go-to-guy for complicated musical heroes and anti-heroes in the past decade, makes August dangerous and unstable and helps raise the temperature with each of his appearances.

Marissa Rosen as Sue, Gregg Edelman as Mr. Jankowski, Taylor Colleton as Vera, Sara Gettelfinger as Barbara, Joe De Paul as Walter and Stan Brown as Camel in a scene from the new musical “Water for Elephants” at the Imperial Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Stan Brown makes a compassionate Camel, while Joe De Paul is an irascible and cranky Walter. Among the actresses, the one we get to know best is statuesque Sara Gettelfinger’s Barbara, hosting the attraction to bring in the male customers. Wade McCollum as August’s enforcer Wade is frightening and dangerous. Among the remarkable actors enacting the animals are Antoine Boissereau’s Silver Star (Marlena’s horse), Alexandra Gaelle Royer’s Agnes (the orangutan) and Caroline Kane, Paul Castree, Michael Mendez, Charles South and Sean Stack, who between them make Rosie such an endearing and life-like character.

The production team has performed wonderful jobs in their specialties. The choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll not only simulates the feel of a real circus, but also creates synchronized movement for the roustabouts, as well as lovely ballroom dances when needed in the storyline. Takeshi Kata’s scenic design is a combination of the real and the surreal, enhanced by the projection design of David Bengali. The costume design by David Israel Reynoso is also a combination of the drab Depression look and the gorgeous circus costumes. Bradley King’s colorful lighting design helps establish mood, time of day and setting.

The cast of the new musical “Water for Elephants” at the Imperial Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

The musical version of Water for Elephants is one of the few film-to-stage adaptations in many years to be as successful as the cinema version. While it might have seemed to be biting off more than they could chew to stage a musical that needs an entire menagerie, this production has beautifully solved all of the problems created by the plot’s needs. The hard-working cast makes both the human characters and the puppet animals memorable while telling a story where the tension rises as the plot builds to its devastating climax.

Water for Elephants (open run)

Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call Telecharge at 1-212–239-6200 or visit http://www.waterforelephantsthemusical.com

Running time: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (991 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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