Water for Elephants

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Photo: Matthew Murphy

Cititour.com Review
Throughout “Water for Elephants,” the crowd-pleasing new musical directed by the talented Jessica Stone at the Imperial Theatre, there are amazing displays of acrobatic ability (mostly performed by the astounding members of the Canadian-based 7 Fingers), energetic down-home dances a la Michael Kidd and the periodic appearances of impressive animal “puppets.” Lions and tigers and elephants, oh my!

It’s all quite entertaining, but also a bit vexing, since these activities keep getting in the way of the show’s main plot. But eventually you realize that there’s not of lot a plot here, nor is it all that original (even if Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel which forms the basis for the musical, was a number one best seller, and the show’s book is by three-time Tony Award nominee Rick Elice). In fact, all the diversions simply add up to a major cause of coitus interruptus.

That said – and even though we are in the 1930s -- we never really doubt that the show’s “hero,” the 20-year-old almost-veterinarian Jacob Jankwoski (the handsome if slightly underpowered Grant Gustin) will eventually consummate his love with the beautiful if unhappy circus star Marlena (the extremely appealing Isabella McCalla) – even though she tries to remain faithful to her increasingly boorish and brutish husband, the circus’ owner and ringmaster August (the red-hot Paul Alexander Nolan in the show’s most mesmerizing performance).

We also know Jacob survives his brief time with the Benzini Circus, since the show is told – unnecessarily in my opinion – through a flashback structure, as the aging Jacob (an always welcome Gregg Edelman) escapes his assisted living facility and visits the current-day circus in town, relating his past to kindly and fascinated workers Charlie and June (also played by Nolan and McCalla).

They’re particularly interested to learn about the famed “animal stampede” that put an end to the Benzini circus in 1931, and – not a shocker – we all must wait until nearly the end of this 2-hour-and-40-minute tuner to find out what that phrase refers to. There’s also a present-day “twist” at the very end of the show, which many viewers will see a mile away.

In addition to the above-mentioned diversions, we do get a handful of fine songs by PigPen Theatre Company, including “The Road Don’t Make You Young,” “I Choose the Ride,” and “Go Home” that help pass the time, although audiences might expect a more expansive score than the one provided.

We’re also treated to very fine supporting performances by Stan Brown as the alcoholic if good-natured veteran worker Camel, Joe DePaul as the embittered clown Walter, Sara Gettelfinger as older and wiser stripper with a heart of gold Barbara, and Wade McCollum as August’s tough right-hand man Wade, who eventually gets his heart broken in its own way.

There’s also no faulting the work of the show’s creative team, notably co-choreographers Jessica Robb and Shana Carroll, set designer Takeshi Kata, costumer David Israel Reynoso and puppet designers Ray Westmore and JR Goodman (even if they owe an unacknowledged debt to Julie Taymor).

Given all this, it wouldn’t be fair to say that “Water for Elephants” is all wet. Unfortunately, it’s also far from being the greatest show on Earth.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 3/21/2024
Closing Open-ended

Theatre Info
Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036