REVIEW: Water For Elephants, Imperial Theatre Broadway ✭✭✭

Ray Rackham reviews new musical Water For Elephants now playing at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre.

Water for Elephants musical
Photo: Murphy Made

Water For Elephants
Imperial Theatre
3 Stars

With a score by the seven-man collective PigPen Theatre, book by Rick Elice, direction from Broadway’s Jessica Stone, and an abundance circus artistry from the talented Shana Carroll, Water for Elephants is a magical and spectacular new musical; but it doesn’t always know what should be destined for the big top and what should be confined to the sideshow.

This season, the marquees of West Forty-Fifth Street could be confused with a movie studio backlot, as Water for Elephants joins the voluminous musical openings throughout March and April. The second book-to-movie-to-musical opening (“The Notebook”, across the street opened days before and “The Outsiders”, also across the street, is still in previews) Water for Elephants is an imaginative spectacle, filled with the innocent artistry of wonder, and acutely balancing the high-wire of narrative and fairy tale.

Water for Elephants Broadway
Photo: Murphy Made

The story is unassuming and simple; a charming old boy (a gloriously nostalgic Gregg Edelman) returns to a circus and is reminded of his own Depression-era past, where he ran away from a devastating family tragedy (which is beautifully staged in one of many highly stylised flashback sequences) and joined the circus decades earlier. What follows is your typical boy (Grant Gustin as Jake, in fine voice) meets girl (Isabelle McCalla as Marlena, the shining light of the company) story, where star-crossed lovers fall in love over animal husbandry (well, this is a circus) and the girl just happens to be married to a rather sociopathic ringmaster August (a deliciously roguish Paul Alexander Nolan). Everything seems signposted toward some form of disaster (be it marital, figurative or literal) and with references to a stampede early on in the show, the pieces of the jigsaw start to fall in place.

Whilst the story is familiar Broadway fare, the abundance of artistry on display is startling. As projection designer, David Bengali creates a constantly shifting panorama of amber-hued clouds and piercing, purple stars that set the piece squarely in the world of majestic Americana. David Israel Reynoso’s costumes are splendidly evocative of both era and theme yet delightfully fresh as if the late Iris Apfel had been asked to colour in sepia photographs of Barnum & Baileys. Takeshi Kata’s suggestive set is garnished with parachute silks, ropes and scaffold, corde lisse and trapeze bars; all stunningly used to great effect by a talented team of acrobats and gymnasts, seamlessly partnered with a company of Broadway performers to create a truly impressive band of circus entertainers. The clever design extends to the most bewitchingly abstract puppets (by Ray Wetmore & JR Goodman and Camille Lebarre) and puppetry (special mention here to acrobat Antoine Boissereau who uses the suggestive head and mane of a horse, together with a stunning aerial silk routine to create a heartbreaking portrayal of an animal at the end of its life).

Water for Elephants
Photo: Murphy Made

Not everything works. For a production so forward-thinking in design tropes, it is sadly very traditional in content. Leaving aside the almost inevitable “ narrator, looking back” conceit, structurally there is an odd irony that the piece seems almost like a revival. “Squeaky Wheel” – a misplaced comedy song harking back to “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” – is perfectly performed by Sara Gettelfinger, Stan Brown, and Joe De Paul but fails to get laughs. Whole company dance numbers, lead either by Gustin or Nolan, are eerily reminiscent of the set pieces in the likes of “State Fair” or Destry Rides Again”. It is interesting that the show’s strongest musical moments are in fact those that go against its structure and lean more in to country-rock-meets-bluegrass score. “Easy Now” gives McCalla her moment to really shine early in the first Act; “What Do You Do” is a beautiful duet between the leads; and the full company reprising “I Choose The Ride” as the show’s finale is a real treat.

Sadly, the most underwhelming moment in a show that is at points overwhelming with artistry is the reveal of Rosie – the Elephant. Whereas the other puppets are abstract, unfinished, and unashamedly connected to a performer; Rosie shares more with Sesame Street’s Mr Snuffleupagus and less with the other meticulously and uniformly designed puppets in the show. This uncomfortable disconnect is only exacerbated by the fact that, until her full reveal, we had been treated to fragments of her being (an odd trunk here, a leg there, puppeteered masterfully by Caroline Kane) which were more in keeping with the other puppets showcased! The result is less War Horse and more Baby June’s Moo-Cow.

With a structure that seems at odds with the innovative storytelling, and only occasional moments of brilliance in its score, Water for Elephants might struggle in a season that is full to bursting with new musicals. However, there is much to enjoy, and the hardest working, seamlessly integrated cast of triple, quadruple, and quintuple threats on Broadway. Go! You’ll enjoy it!

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