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March 31, 2024
Running Off to Join The Circus
Water for Elephants

Photo by Matthew Murphy

I was 14 years old when i went to the circus for the first time. I don’t recollect any of the acts, but I can remember the sideshow and even bought a souvenir ‘giant’ size ring. Overall, I recall an air of sadness that pervaded the entire day.

The new play “Water for Elephants” based upon the best-selling book by Sara Gruen (2006 ) shares much of that same vibe. Despite its high energy and incredible acrobatics, there’s underlying sorrow and darkness. The musical is set during the Depression and the people are desperate to survive. The circus features animals who are mistreated and poorly fed. Workers are tossed from the circus train if they are not productive, sometimes even as it is moving, and are treated as poorly as the caged animals.

Jacob, a veterinary student, (played by a gentle Grant Gustin) loses his parents in a car accident and his whole life is upended. Aimless, he jumps the train which carries the “Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth” and his circus adventure begins. Like two other recent musicals, “The Notebook” and “A Beautiful Noise,” the show uses an older character recalling his younger self. (Here Mr. Jankowski is played by Greg Edelman, a theater veteran with charm and warmth.) The older Jacob has gone to visit a circus near his retirement home and shares his tale with two young people there.

Although Jacob isn’t a certified vet, the ringmaster/owner August (excellent Paul Alexander Nolan) hires him to work with the circus animals. Eventually Jacob bonds with the circus folks, including no-nonsense clown Walter (Joe de Paul) and Camel (Stan Brown) an older avuncular worker who welcomes Jacob into the ‘family.’

Unsurprisingly, Jacob falls for August’s wife, the beautiful Marlena (Isabelle McCalla,) setting up the conflict between August and Jacob. When August needs a star attraction, he buys Rosie, an elephant. His true cruel personality emerges when Rosie doesn’t obey commands and he beats the creature. Fortunately, we only hear the sound from off-stage. By accident, Jacob and Marlena realize that Rosie is not stupid and they find a way to communicate with her.

Besides the mistreatment of the animals, some of the darkness is conveyed in the music by Pigpen Theatre Co. Jacob is lonely and depressed and some of his songs reflect that. There are some “road songs,’ which have a country flavor and are a bit livelier. One number called “Zostan” meaning ‘welcome, stay’ in Polish includes the entire company. The second act has the obligatory love song which drags on.

Despite the sadness, the musical is still one of the best new shows around. The music is diverse and the acrobatics by Kinkers & Rousts are astounding. The circus artists are constantly in motion, flipping, twirling, and gyrating using rings and doing wire walking. Some of the flips caused us to catch our collective breath. Their performances are worth the price of the ticket alone. The moves are beautifully staged and we were conscious that any mistake could result in serious injury. (Circus Designer & Co-Choreographer Shana Carroll and Co-Choreographer- Jess Robb.)

And then there is the puppetry used to represent the animals. (Costume design David Israel Reynoso.) The animals are also portrayed by the acrobats. Some, like the orangutan with fur on her body and the lion with its headpiece, are reminiscent of the puppets in “The Lion King.” But other creatures like Silver Star, Marlena’s horse, have personality and we see more acrobat (Antoine Boissereau) than horse. Rosie, the elephant, makes her full appearance little by little and is stupendous. At first, there’s an acrobat carrying a trunk, then a silhouette on the curtain and eventually we see the whole majestic creature and the audience erupts in applause.

The last events of the story are summarized in Rick Elice’s script. Mr. Jankowski quickly describes the destruction of the circus and the rest of his and Marlena’s lives. The audience knows that something dramatic will happen because it is alluded to earlier, yet it is related more than depicted.

Director Jessica Stone (Kimberly Akimbo) could have made the musical move faster by trimming the first act, cutting a number or two, and spending more time developing the second. One of the best parts of Gruen’s book is Rosie’s part in the ending which occurs too quickly in the musical. It was satisfying for a reader-not so much in the theater.

Over 10 million copies of the book sold, making it a New York Times bestseller which means a built-in audience for the show. The book has a charm and a few plot twists that makes it a satisfying read.

Although “Water for Elephants” is a musical about a circus, I wouldn't bring our 11- year old. It’s too dark and contains too much cruelty even though that element is handled well. We grown-ups will appreciate the puppetry and marvel at the acrobats and perhaps, just for a moment, wonder how life would be to run away and join the circus.


Imperial Theatre
249 W 45Th St.
New York, NY 10036

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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