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The Broadway Review: ‘Water for Elephants’ explores familiar territory through novel theatrics

Director Jessica Stone pitches an exciting circus tent on conventional musical theater grounds.

The company of “Water for Elephants” on Broadway, 2024 (Credit: Matthew Murphy)

Good morning, and welcome to Broadway News’ Broadway Review by Brittani Samuel — our overview of reactions, recommendations and information tied to last night’s Broadway opening of “Water for Elephants.” 


(L-R) Grant Gustin and Stan Brown in “Water for Elephants” on Broadway, 2024 (Credit: Matthew Murphy)

Why is it that trips to the circus are filled with such delight and wonder when so often the circus performers wading beneath these bewitching big tops are suffering? The new Broadway musical “Water for Elephants,” sourced from Sara Gruen’s popular 2006 novel, offers some insight. Running away with the circus is an escape championed by the lonely, the outcast and — in central character Jacob Jankowsi’s case — the grieving. After losing his parents, Jacob finds solace in Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth; his sadness isn’t so unique (and therefore isolating) in a place like this. Director Jessica Stone beautifully navigates the musical’s tricky order: execute the level of physical extravagance any circus-musical hybrid of this monumental scale demands, but keep Jacob’s potent, time-leaping personal story intact. An older Jacob remembers his young self falling in love with a Liberty Act performer named Marlena (the luminous Isabelle McCalla), training the Benzini Brothers’ clump of previously ill-treated animals, triumphing over the circus’ manipulative and murderous ringleader August (the slimy Paul Alexander Nolan). To say that Jacob’s adventures hold as much weight here as all the spectacle would be a lie, but book writer Rick Elice pens a compelling-enough narrative for a man working with dated (the action takes place during the Great Depression) material. PigPen Theatre Co’s score — though toe-tappy and period-appropriate — remains largely in the background here, working harder to establish mood and setting with its hokey use of banjo and fiddle than to drive scenes forward. Fortunately, the interpretation of that score by choreographers Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll (also the circus designer) consistently stuns. The movement oscillates between explosive and lyrical, but none of it is overindulgent. If anything, we crave more of these moments — when ensemble singers join in the eruptive dancing, when acrobats who were just spinning, leaping and straining the rules of gravity open their mouths and slide into harmony. All of these theatrical elements, however, must ultimately bow down to the musical’s most impassioned feat: the might of Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman and Camille Labarre’s sincere, emotive puppetry design. Most notably, their fabrication of Jacob and Marlena’s prized treasure: Rosie the elephant. At first, Rosie simply appears as a pair of legs. But as the musical progresses, Wetmore, Goodman and Labarre reveal the grand dame’s full self — a heartwarming metaphor for all who go see this charming show.

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