Review: Water for Elephants Is Broadway’s First Fully Integrated Circus Musical

Rick Elice and PigPen Theatre Co. deliver a high-flying new American musical to Broadway.

The Broadway cast performs the first act finale of Rick Elice and PigPen Theatre Co.’s Water for Elephants, directed by Jessica Stone, at the Imperial Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

You can see the American musical leaping forward at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre. It leaps, contorts, climbs to dizzying heights, and rotates at impossible speeds in Water for Elephants, the death-defying new musical by Rick Elice (book) and PigPen Theatre Co. (score), the indispensable theater troupe and band now making a giant splash in its Broadway debut.

Based on Sara Gruen’s fascinating novel, Water for Elephants is about Jacob Jankowski (Gregg Edelman), a retired veterinarian who has decided to attend the circus. He lingers as the crew strikes set, and curious workers learn that Jacob got his start in the circus when he ran away from his final exams at Cornell.

Grant Gustin plays that younger Jacob, who at the height of the Great Depression hops a train carrying the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. The Benzinis went belly-up in ’29 and the new proprietor, August Rachinger (Paul Alexander Nolan), has yet to rebrand. August’s first impulse is to throw Jacob from the train, but he has a change of heart when he learns of his Ivy credentials. He tasks Jacob with caring for Silver Star (Antoine Boissereau), an ailing show horse and favorite of headliner Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), who also happens to be August’s wife. A love triangle inconveniently forms as the circus teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.

Isabelle McCalla plays Marlena, and Grant Gustin plays Jacob in Rick Elice and PigPen Theatre Co.’s Water for Elephants, directed by Jessica Stone, at the Imperial Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Director Jessica Stone’s production (which made its world premiere last summer at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre) features real circus acts that emerge seamlessly from the story under the shrewd guidance of Shana Carroll. Roustabouts hammer stakes into the ground, juggling the heavy mallets. They nimbly leap and dive over rope, while one climbs to the top of a very tall pole and freefalls, catching himself just in time to place a top hat on August’s head (the superhumanly agile Gabriel Olivera de Paula Costa performs this breathtaking feat). Boissereau is devastating in his portrayal of Silver Star’s struggle to live, depicted through a mournful aerial act that made me gasp and tear up all at once.

Broadway has hosted circus acts before, most recently the dreary adaptation of The Little Prince. When there is a plot to these shows, it mostly serves as a flimsy skeleton on which to hang the routines. But the equation is reversed here, with every jaw-dropping stunt serving the story that Elice and PigPen have cooked up, making this, to my knowledge, the first fully integrated circus musical on Broadway.

And what a musical it is. Elice has smartly condensed characters while preserving the bulk of the plot — not an easy task when adapting a novel to the stage. It’s often the case in the theater that too many cooks spoil the broth, but the collaboratively written score by PigPen has more personality than many a new musical that makes it to Broadway.

A joyful blend of jazz and American roots music, it had me by the rollicking production number “The Road Don’t Make You Young.” Stan Brown (who plays Camel, the older roustabout who first takes pity on Jacob) gave me chills with the gospel-infused “I Choose the Ride.” PigPen teases out the first act finale, “The Grand Spec,” over the course of the 80 minutes, so we’re chomping at the bit by the time this truly spectacular number arrives. PigPen has a knack for showmanship and a keen understanding of what music can do onstage.

The cast of Water for Elephants, directed by Jessica Stone, at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Even when Water for Elephants sags with contemplative ballads and reprises in the second act, Stone and company give us something beautiful to behold, like an acrobatic dream ballet that unpacks Jacob’s back story and brings him to the precipice of a fateful choice (stunning choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll).

The art of directing musicals is delegation, and Stone has done that masterfully here with a top-shelf design team. Takeshi Kata’s scaffolding-on-castors set is endlessly rearrangeable, so we get a physical sense of the circus moving from town to town via train (David Bengali’s tasteful projections complete the illusion). Lighting designer Bradley King serves sharp angles and dreamy saturation as the story emerges from Jacob’s memory. The music is clear and the lyrics are crisp under Walter Trarbach’s sound design.

Perhaps taking inspiration from the work Julie Taymor did on The Lion King, Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman, and Camille Labarre have traveled a few steps further down the road with their handsomely crafted puppets, which suggest a whole animal using just a head or other appendage. Their gargantuan elephant puppet had me grinning from ear to ear.

David Israel Reynoso’s form-fitting costumes not only capture the glitz of the circus, but aid in the storytelling by allowing the actors to jump between the frame and Jacob’s memories through quick changes worthy of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The ultimate ringmaster, Stone keeps all these moving parts working in tandem.

Paul Alexander Nolan (center) plays August in Rick Elice and PigPen Theatre Co.’s Water for Elephants, directed by Jessica Stone, at the Imperial Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

The entire cast works up a sweat to bring her vision to fruition, with Gustin and McCalla providing a strong gravitational core through their undeniable chemistry. Edelman is charming and grandfatherly as the older Jacob. Nolan’s shouty August feels legitimately threatening, a man capably of bullying even his hired muscle (the ultra-butch Wade McCollum). Perfectly cast as Walter the clown, Joe De Paul is genuinely funny in his front-of-curtain bit with Nolan. And Sara Gettelfinger delivers a whisky kiss of a performance as the brassy Barbara. The ensemble actors play circus performers, cooch dancers, roustabouts, and a whole menagerie of animals to create a show that is the theatrical full package.

Water for Elephants isn’t just the frontrunner for the 2024 Tony Award for Best Musical, it’s a bold assertion that this still young artform has plenty of tricks left to reveal. It may not be the greatest show on Earth, but it is most certainly the best new musical on Broadway.

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