‘Water For Elephants’ Broadway Review: Big Top, Small Story

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Water For Elephants, the musical opening tonight at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre, is perhaps best viewed as a redemptive attempt to adapt Sara Gruen’s popular 2006 historical romance novel into something, anything, to block from memory the middling, grim 2011 film starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.

That’s faint praise, to be sure, but credit where it’s due: Despite source material whose hold on at least some segment of the popular imagination remains inscrutable to the rest of us, the new musical is never less than diverting, with its gorgeous aerial acrobatics, solid work from director Jessica Stone (Kimberly Akimbo) and a plucky pastiche of a score that hints, to my ears, at ’30s-era novelty songs, old timey banjo music, Tin Pan Alley, Black gospel, Jesus Christ Superstar-era Andrew Lloyd Webber and 21st Century stage musical pop.

Like that other romance-novel-turned-musical playing just down the block, Water For Elephants, as with The Notebook, has few surprises in store even for those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie. Both musicals feature fairly predictable love stories, flashback structures (down to the near-identical old-man narrators) and wistful melancholy moods that are rarely broken.

But while The Notebook drags (and bores), Water For Elephants is a pleasant, visually beguiling show, with a cast, led by The Flash‘s Grant Gustin in a sweet-voiced Broadway debut, that puts some charm into a thin book by Rick Elice that probably veered too close to the novel for its own good.

Gustin and the cast

Matthew Murphy

The show begins in a vaguely drawn modern era (another similarity with The Notebook – both shows seem loathe to present their present-day scenes with any specificity; the non-flashback scenes of Water could be set in any time between MTV’s heyday and Y2K). A nursing home “escapee” wanders behind the curtains of a traveling circus, where he’s greeted by some very “Hey, Big Spender”-type old-school carnival ghosts, who beckon “Hey, mister, I’m talkin’ to you!,” among other entreaties.

The ghosts – we’ll get to know their corporeal selves soon enough – are then replaced by the real, modern-day circus workers, who tell old Mr. Jankowski (the ever reliable, if perhaps a tad too youthful looking, Gregg Edelman) to beat it. But before you can say “bozo” the old guy is impressing everyone with his veterinary advice and “I was there” memories of a long ago, now-legendary circus tale that ended in a stampede of historical significance. We’ll get to that.

Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, Gustin

Matthew Murphy

Back in 1931, young and on-the-run Jacob Jankowski (Gustin) hops a moving locomotive (presented simply and niftily with a floating ladder and the wheeled scaffold platforms that become the circus train). After some mild hazing, Jacob finds a temporary home among the animal trainers, knife-throwers, acrobats and clowns that make up the gimcrack spit-and-greasepaint Benzini Brothers Circus.

Most especially, Jacob makes an immediate connection with Marlena (Isabelle McCalla, The Prom, Shucked), the beautiful horse-trainer and rider who happens to be married to circus owner August (Paul Alexander Nolan, Slave Play), an erratic man given to eruptions of violence. Someone is gonna get hurt. Audiences are required to take the instantaneous Jacob-Marlena bond on faith.

As for August, we first see the extent of his temper with his treatment of the circus animals, a menagerie brought to life via the charming, full-size Lion King-like puppets (designed by Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman and Camille Labarre). The star of Water‘s critters – as well as of the Benzini circus – is Rosy the elephant, a magnificent creation that director Stone cleverly introduces very gradually – a glimpse of a trunk here, a floppy ear there, one leg and then another.

Jacob and Marlena set about training Rosy, gently, and with compassion, falling in love with the big beast just as surely as they’re falling for each other. The volatile August, of course, isn’t so patient, and quicly resorts to the dreaded bullhook for results. (The musical’s animal rights messaging, while laudable, is more than a little heavy-handed and anachronistic.)

By now, every last clown can see a big reckoning coming, with the circus train on a collision course with secret lovers, an angry husband, and one very large pachyderm. Toss in a cool-looking, if somewhat anticlimactic stampede of all the animal puppets and you’ve got Water For Elephants. (That title, by the way, is a circus in-joke, eventually explained.)

The cast of ‘Water For Elephants’

Matthew Murphy

While the story’s dramatic tension isn’t exactly edge-of-seat, Water For Elephants holds our attention with some terrific acrobatics, tumbling and high-flying aerial feats (Shana Carroll, the artistic director of the contemporary circus and theater collective The 7 Fingers, did both the circus design and, with Jesse Robb, the choreography).

So, too, does the score by Pigpen Theatre Co., a seven-member collective of music-makers, performers and multi-media artists. Some musical numbers of particular note: the statement-making anthem “I Choose The Ride,” the catchy-goofy “Zostan” (a sort of carny counterpart to Frozen‘s “Hygge”) and the Chicago-style razzle-dazzler “Squeaky Wheel.”

The show’s look is an appropriate mix of Big Top Flash and Depression Threadbare – Takeshi Kata did the inventive scenic design, David Israel Reynoso the rags-to-pizazz costumes, Bradley King the gorgeous lighting design and Walter Trarbach the barker-friendly sound design. David Bengali’s mood-setting projections are invaluable.

In addition to the fine three lead actors, the ensemble cast includes a few stand-outs, notably Stan Brown as the grizzled, used-up emotional heart of the workers and Sara Gettelfinger as a bawdy dancer one or two bumps and grinds past her prime.

Ultimately, Water proves to be a fairly disappointing choice by director Stone as a follow-up to the brilliant Kimberly Akimbo (but, really, what wouldn’t have been?). It’s modest pleasures are never anything but safe, even without a net.

Title: Water For Elephants
Venue: Broadway’s Imperial Theatre
Director: Jessica Stone
Book: Rick Elice, Based On The Novel By Sara Gruen
Music & Lyrics: Pigpen Theatre Co.
Cast: Grant Gustin, Isabelle McCalla, Gregg Edelman, Paul Alexander Nolan, Stan Brown, Joe De Paul, Sara Gettelfinger and Wade McCollum, with Brandon Block, Antoine Boissereau, Rachael Boyd, Paul Castree, Ken Wulf Clark, Taylor Colleton, Gabriel Olivera de Paula Costa, Isabella Luisa Diaz, Samantha Gershman, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Nicolas Jelmoni, Caroline Kane, Harley Ross Beckwith McLeish, Michael Mendez, Samuel Renaud, Marissa Rosen, Alexandra Gaelle Royer, Asa Somers, Charles South, Sean Stack, Matthew Varvar and Michelle West
Running time: 2 hr 40 min (including intermission)

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