Broadway Review: WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (Imperial Theatre)

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by Paola Bellu on March 29, 2024

in Theater-New York


Looking at the long line that stretched all the way to 7th Avenue to get inside the 1920s Imperial Theatre, I thought I was about to see a masterpiece. I was not familiar with the plot but I knew it was a medley of Circus Arts and Broadway Theater, an alluring experiment directed by Jessica Stone. While the acrobatic ensemble passionately embraced the acting, singing, and dancing on aerial silks and tightropes, the Broadway part was lackluster — the two never merged and the circus stole the show.

Grant Gustin and the cast
Isabelle McCalla and Grant Gustin

Rick Elice’s book is based on the eponymous 2006 circus-themed love story by Canadian-American author Sara Gruen, and the 2011 movie directed by Francis Lawrence. Just like The Notebook, and many other novels adapted for the theater, we start with an old version of the main character who takes us through the entire story. Gregg Edelman plays Mr. Jacob Jankowski with dreamy eyes and an innocent attitude even when he is faced with tragedy, a charming never-growing adult.

Paul Alexander Nolan and the cast

Grant Gustin is the young version of Mr. Jankowski, a veterinary student who, during the Depression, loses his parents in a car crash and in total desperation hops on a train to nowhere. Inside a rail wagon, he meets the “kinkers” and “rousts” from the Benzini Brothers Circus, a troupe that is about to go broke, and desperately needs a main act because their beautiful white stallion, Silver Star, is sick.

Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, and Grant Gustin
Paul Alexander Nolan and The Cast

Jacob is hired as a vet and immediately meets his dream girl, the circus’s star Marlena, played by angelic Isabelle McCalla, who performs on Silver Star and is devoted to the animal that Jacob is now trying to save. They’re a perfect match and make a gorgeous couple, but she is married to August, the cruel circus owner and ringmaster, played by Paul Alexander Nolan as the perfect sociopath. Jacob finds a new main act, Rosie the elephant, to replace Silver Star and the circus is back in business. (One of the best moments in the show has Antoine Boissereau performing a dramatic aerial ballet as the spirit of the dying horse; it took my breath away.)

Gabriel Olivera de Paula Costa and Wade McCollum
Isabelle McCalla and Grant Gustin

At the end of Act I, I was left with more questions than wows, taking away the extraordinary work of co-choreographers Jesse Robb and circus designer Shana Carroll of the world-renowned circus and arts collective The 7 Fingers (Passengers, TracesCuisine & Confessions). While they flawlessly coordinated the incredibly talented ensemble who flew, bounced, juggled, floated, and swirled throughout the set, the play itself caused almost no emotion. Gustin and McCalla’s performances were unremarkable, partly because their solo songs weren’t memorable and their lines trite. Music and lyrics by PigPen Theatre Co. (The Old Man and the Old Moon) worked well with the big numbers, a lot less with the solos and ballads.

Isabelle McCalla
Grant Gustin

Alexandra Gaelle Royer, playing an orangutan named Agnes and various other acrobatic roles, gave us more pathos without saying a word; the same with Caroline Kane as Rosie, the cute star of the show that is a full pachyderm. The puppetry by Ray Wetmore & JR Goodman and Camille Labarre is whimsical and creative; aside from Rosie, all circus animals – stallion, lions, tigers, monkeys, giraffes – are merely suggested and the ensemble makes them come alive.

Grant Gustin and The Cast

The scenic design by Takeshi Kata is minimalistic and practical, using simple elements like carts, ladders, and scaffolding with little embellishment. Yet he brings us back in time and on the road with the help of David Israel Reynoso‘s costumes, Bradley King‘s lighting and David Bengali‘s projections. They all did a remarkable job framing the story.

Grant Gustin, Stan Brown and cast
Marissa Rosen, Gregg Edelman, Taylor Colleton,
Sara Gettelfinger, Joe De Paul, and Stan Brown

Besides the enchanting ensemble, a trio of actors made a mark: a sublime Sara Gettelfinger as Barbara perfectly embodied the hoochie coochie dancers of the ‘30s; the golden-voiced Stan Brown is Camel, a drunk roustabout; and Joe De Paul is Walter, a grumpy clown. 

Joe De Paul and Paul Alexander Nolan
Marissa Rosen, Sara Gettelfinger, Taylor Colleton and Grant Gustin

Along with Royer, Boissereau, and Kane, the true stars are ensemble members Brandon Block, Paul Castree, Taylor Colleton, Isabella Luisa Diaz, Gabrielle Elisabeth, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Nicolas Jelmoni, Joel Malkoff, Michael Mendez, Jo’Nathan Michael, Gabriel Olivera De Paula Costa, Samuel Renaud, Marissa Rosen, Sean Stack, Matthew Varvar, and Michelle West.


After intermission, I was hoping the show would expand in the second act but it was more of the same. Water for Elephants is not a masterpiece — more like Circus Candy, those confections with deceptively impressive packaging. The experiment of merging the two arts didn’t work properly, leaving us with the sense of having seen two plays, but the magnificent choreography should be absolutely awarded and the ensemble praised. Bravissimi!

photos by Matthew Murphy

Water for Elephants
Imperial Theater, 249 West 45th Street
running time 2 hours, 40 minutes
open run
for tickets, call 212.239.6200 or visit Telecharge
for more info, visit Water for Elephants
followat @w4emusical
#W4EMusical #ChooseTheRide #WaterForElephantsMusical

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jeanne April 14, 2024 at 5:43 pm

I think Gabriel Olivera de Paula Costa stole the show although the other acrobats and performers were amazing. The spectacle definitely was the highlight, and so was the performance by the white horse – and Rosie the elephant. Paul Alexander Nolan is dependable and all the leads were strong, although some of the songs seemed like filler especially some of the love songs.


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