“Water for Elephants” at Imperial Theatre, New York

Glenda Frank on Broadway
15 April 2024

Water for Elephants is one of the most beautifully crafted musicals to vault onto a Broadway stage. It tells a double story (Rick Elice, book, based on the novel by Sara Gruen) about a man in a nursing home regaining his life and also about his younger self, at a nadir of despair and loss, finding his future through love. The dangerous love for the big top’s headliner, who is married to a man with uncontrollable rage. The unexpected affection of the oversized Rosie, who only understands Polish. And the friendship of a slew of circus denizens who begin the musical by deciding not to toss him from a moving train. Each component – acrobatics, acting, choreography – is a distinct artistic achievement, yet the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


Paul Alexander Nolan.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.


The story opens with the older Jacob Jankowski (Gregg Edelman, Drama Desk Award for 1776) at O’Brien’s One-Ring Circus, having sneaked away from the retirement home. He may not be circus royalty, like Walter, the clown (Joe De Paul), but he was there at the legendary stampede that closed the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth. The young circus owners want all the details, and so the musical unfolds. Wisely, Elice balances the love stories with worries about the finances of a circus during the Great Depression and shows details of the lives of the various “kinkers” (performers). We step into a definitive world, graced with the innovative choreography of Shana Carroll and Jesse Robb (Cirque du Soleil), and high drama circus performances, most notably by acrobats Isabella Luisa Diaz (Pilobolus Dance Theatre) and Alexandra Gaelle Royer whose leaps keep everybody breathless.

Isabelle McCalla, who plays Marlena, the bareback rider and Jacob’s love interest, has become a Broadway darling. Recently she has gone from Aladdin to The Prom and on to Shucked, where she played Maizy, a country woman on a quest to save her town, proving her skills and range. And what skills! In Water for Elephants she does a circus bit too. McCalla’s Marlena is classy and adventurous, a young woman disowned by her upper-middle-class family after she joined the big tent. Like many of the performers, Grant Gustin, as the young Jacob, is making his Broadway debut, and he is a find. With the presence and skills of a seasoned lead, he easily pulls us into this world of trouble and glitter. The ringmaster of the foundering spectacular is the charismatic August (Paul Alexander Nolan, Jesus in Jesus Christ, Superstar), Marlena’s Jekyll-and-Hyde husband. Even the minor characters are rounded personalities who cast long shadows.


Isabelle McCalla & Grant Gustin.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.


Puppetry has been making inroads into commercial theatre, at least since the incomparable creations of War Horse, a National Theatre import, pranced the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center in 2011. So, it’s fitting that the first puppet (design by Ray Wetmore JR Goodman and Camille Labarre) is Silver Star, Marlene’s dying stallion, her partner in her act.

Thanks to McCalla’s performance, the on-stage puppeteers, and Antoine Boissereau’s acrobatic silks, the loss is palpable. Rosie, the elephant that August bought as a replacement because the price was right, is introduced to us as a shadow puppet and a bellow. Gradually she makes her presence felt. The disembodied trunk was a good effect, but what moved me most were her giant legs, one introduced after another for the imagination to create the massive whole before the stampede.

The score and lyrics by Pigpen Theatre Company highlighted moments of emotional intensity while propelling the story line, altering the formula of narrative/feeling to fit the scene. The company’s “The Road Don’t Make You Young” is a spirited lament for and celebration of the life of the roustabouts. In the duet “Wild,” Marlena and Jacob confess their emotions.

Catchy costumes by David Israel Reynoso (Obie Award for Sleep No More), versatile set by Takesha Kata (Prayer for the French Republic), free ranging lighting by Bradley King (Tony nomination for Fat Ham), and the sound design by Walter Trarbach at once stand out and are integrated into a seamless whole, a rare achievement. Director Jessica Stone (Kimberly Akimbo) displays a sure, light touch and a delicate balance of the parts. Water for Elephants never flags. It’s engaging, poignant, and horrifying. If you are choosing to see only one Broadway show this season, this is the one.