‘Water for Elephants’: Circus Acts, Love, and Adventure

The Broadway version carries more than water for Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel.
‘Water for Elephants’: Circus Acts, Love, and Adventure
It's the circus life for the cast of "Water for Elephants" now showing on Broadway. (Matthew Murphy)

NEW YORK—Memories of times good and bad are the linchpin for the new Broadway musical “Water for Elephants.” Based on the 2006 novel by Sara Gruen, it’s the tale of a world where the sweet smell of nostalgia mingles with reality’s bitter aftertaste.

Mr. Jankowski (Gregg Edelman) has left his room at a nursing home to attend a performance of a traveling circus that has come to town. A genial sort, he quickly endears himself to the company members who find him wandering around backstage—especially when they realize Jankowski once worked in the circus himself, as he soon starts to recall.

Mr. Jankowski (Gregg Edelman, holding an elephant) recalls his circus days, in "Water for Elephants." (Matthew Murphy)
Mr. Jankowski (Gregg Edelman, holding an elephant) recalls his circus days, in "Water for Elephants." (Matthew Murphy)

In 1931, a young Jacob Jankowski (Grant Gustin) was just shy of taking his final exam to become a veterinarian when a tragedy changed his life forever. Left with no home, family or money, he hopped on a train out of town, which just happened to serve as transport for the Benzini Circus. After convincing those on board not to throw him off, he’s offered a job by Camel (Stan Brown), an aging roustabout who takes a liking to the young man.

Jacob initially intends to stay only long enough to earn a free meal or three, but when he meets August (Paul Alexander Nolan), the circus owner who is impressed with Jacob’s affinity for animals, he joins the circus as the company vet. When Jacob points out he isn’t officially certified in the profession, August explains a circus fact of life: Much of what is assumed to be true under the big top, from ferocious animals to side show attractions, are actually lies or illusions, as will be the case if anyone asks about Jacob’s qualifications.

This truism is delightfully explored in “The Lion Has Got No Teeth,” one of many standout numbers from PigPen Theatre Co.’s excellent score. Jacob also finds a friend in Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), a performer in the circus who is also August’s wife.

Marlena (Isabelle McCalla) and Jacob (Grant Gustin) fall in love, in "Water for Elephants" on Broadway. (Matthew Murphy)
Marlena (Isabelle McCalla) and Jacob (Grant Gustin) fall in love, in "Water for Elephants" on Broadway. (Matthew Murphy)

The fortunes of the struggling circus take an unexpected turn when it acquires an elephant named Rosie. With Jacob as her trainer and Marlena astride Rosie in the ring, the company starts playing to packed houses. However, it’s not long before Jacob and Marlena begin to have feelings for each other. This growing closeness triggers a jealous anger in August, whose outwardly jovial manner hides a dangerous propensity for cruelty and violence. As these events threaten to split asunder what has become Jacob’s new home and family, everyone becomes involved in a tragic event which has since become part of circus history.

Rick Elice’s book calls to mind a time when the circus was a primary source of entertainment for the untold number of towns and cities it visited each year. To outsiders, it probably seemed to offer a life of travel and adventure, something Marlena believed when she met and fell in love with August and ran off with him, instead of following the path planned by her parents. But a traveling carnival could be a hard and unforgiving life, as the company sings in the mournful number, “The Road Don’t Make You Young.”

Several members of the circus also carry mental and physical scars from their service in the World War I—among them Camel and his fellow roustabout Wade (Wade McCollum), a man who also acts as August’s enforcer.

Circus Acts Add to the Entertainment

Director Jessica Stone, along with choreographers Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll (who is also credited for the circus design) keeps the audience mesmerized with a balance of personal interplay between the characters and, of course, the circus acts, which include twists, jumps, flips, and tumbles, as well as juggling, sliding down poles and ropes from the rafters, and walking a wire. Takeshi Kata’s scenic design also frames the onstage action convincingly.

As the young Jacob, Mr. Gustin is convincing as a man who finds a new beginning in a place he never expected. As the elder Jacob, Mr. Edelman is filled with wistfulness as he longs for just one more day in the circus.

Mr. Brown and Mr. McCollum offer realistic portrayals of men completely beaten down by life, and Joe DePaul is sardonic as a clown with a perpetually sour personality. Mr. Nolan does well in making what could easily be a stereotypical villain something far more.

Rosie the Elephant is startlingly portrayed by a team of performers (Caroline Kane, Paul Castree, Michael Mendez, Charles South, Sean Stack) who make the audience believe that the animal is real.

“Water for Elephants,” the title a reference to an old circus joke, offers a wonderful combination of spectacle and emotion, so don’t miss this circus while it’s on Broadway.

‘Water for Elephants’ Imperial Theatre 249 W. 45th St., New York Tickets: 212-239-6200 or TeleCharge.com Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (one intermission) Open run
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Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.