Water for Elephants
Photograph: Courtesy Matthew MurphyWater for Elephants
  • Theater, Musicals
  • Imperial Theatre, Midtown West
  • Open run
  • Recommended


Water for Elephants

4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

Broadway review by Adam Feldman 

Step right up, come one, come all, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up to the greatest—well, okay, not the greatest show on Broadway, but a dang fine show nonetheless. Although Water for Elephants is set at a circus, and includes several moments of thrilling spectacle, what makes it so appealing is its modesty, not glitz. Like the story’s one-ring Benzini Brothers Circus, a scrappy company touring the country in the early years of the Depression, this original musical knows it’s not the ritziest show on the circuit. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in wonder, and it’s pretty wonderful at making things up.

Water for Elephants has a book by Rick Elice, who wrote the delightful stage version of Peter and the Starcatcher, and songs by the seven-man collective PigPen Theatre Co., which specializes in dark-edged musical story theater. This team knows how to craft magic moments out of spare parts, and so does director Jessica Stone, who steered Kimberly Akimbo to Broadway last season. Together—and with a mighty hand from circus expert Shana Carroll, of the Montreal cirque troupe the 7 Fingers—they have found the right tone for this adaptation of Sara Gruen’s 2006 romance novel, which operates on the level of a fairy tale.

The plot is basic. The impoverished Jake Jankowski (The Flash's Grant Gustin), a sensitive and floppy-haired fellow, is forced by family tragedy to drop out of his Ivy League veterinary school. With nothing to lose, he hops a passing train and winds up joining a traveling circus—“nowhere on wheels,” as someone describes it—run by its cruel ringmaster, August (the intense and golden-voiced Paul Alexander Nolan); things get complicated when he falls in love with August’s lovely wife and star attraction, Marlena (Isabelle McCalla). As in the similar Moulin Rouge!, there’s an elephant involved: “One beautiful, one bestial / One strong, one celestial,” August sings of Marlena's animal act. (Somewhere, Stephen Sondheim is chuckling.) And as in several other recent Broadway musicals, the whole story is narrated by an older version of our hero (Gregg Edelman) decades later.  

Water for Elephants | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

The stakes of this familiar romantic triangle are not, in and of themselves, enough to anchor a big tent. But the creators of Water for Elephants find other ways to ground the show, and to let it fly. The score, which mines several veins of Americana, is skillfully crafted. (August, bragging about fooling the rubes with harmless lions: “Our lies are our pride / And our pride’s in our lies / And the lions in our pride have got no teeth!”) And Stone’s staging embraces overt theatricality as an invitation to imagination. Takeshi Kata's set evokes a train with style and minimal fuss. Animals are sometimes rendered as hand puppets, sometimes as shadows; one performer dons fur to cavort as an orangutan, and several team up to embody the elephant, Rosie. A slow-motion depiction of a car crash is simple and strikingly beautiful. 

Where Water for Elephants soars, though, is in the real-life physical talents on display. Carroll shares choreography credit with Jesse Robb, and they seamlessly integrate circus artistry into the show’s other movement. Members of the ensemble perform impressive aerial routines on ropes, silks, hoops and straps, and show off a dazzling variety of skills: acrobatics, tumbling, balancing, juggling, Cyr Wheel. Although the principal actors sing well and flesh out their roles commendably—McCalla is particularly good in her second-act decision song, “What Do You Do?”—they are effectively the sideshow here. The main attraction is the pull of the circus itself. 

Water for Elephants. Imperial Theatre (Broadway). Book by Rick Elice. Music and lyrics by PigPen Theatre Co. Directed by Jessica Stone. With Grant Gustin, Isabelle McCalla, Paul Alexander Nolan, Gregg Edelman, Stan Brown, Joe De Paul, Sara Gettelfinger, Wade McCollum. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission. 

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Water for Elephants | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy


Imperial Theatre
249 W 45th St
New York
Cross street:
between Broadway and Eighth Ave
Subway: A, C, E to 42nd St–Port Authority; N, Q, R, 42nd St S, 1, 2, 3, 7 to 42nd St–Times Sq

Dates and times

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