‘Water For Elephants’ Musical is a Spectacle of a Show

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I’m sure plenty of us have heard the phrase “running away to the circus” at some point in our lives. I remember growing up hearing it in some capacity and sometimes even entertaining the thought. How cool would it have been to do something adventurous, such as joining a traveling circus, purely on impulse, with no sense of the repercussions of our actions? Giving up a life we’ve come to know intimately for something new, exciting, and potentially dangerous. Water For Elephants takes this long-standing phrase and runs away with it, pun intended.

Based on a novel by Sarah Gruen, as well as the subsequent film adaptation starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, Water for Elephants follows the story of Jacob Jankowski, who unexpectedly finds himself the veterinarian of a traveling circus and the caretaker to a new elephant no less. With a book by Rick Elice (Peter and the Starcatcher, Jersey Boys) and music/lyrics from PigPen Theatre Co., this musical is looking to knock the socks off the audiences of the Imperial Theatre with stunning spectacles sure to amaze. So, is Water for Elephants worth your time and deserving of the seven Tony Award nominations, or should you see some other Broadway shows? Find out what I thought below!

[Warning: spoilers from Water For Elephants are below!]

Hopping on a train to a new life in this musical based on Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants

The show opens with Jacob Jankowski (played by Gregg Edelman) sitting in the stands as the circus he just attended is packed away. Charlie (Paul Alexander Nolan) and June (played by Samantha Gershman at this performance) politely ask him to leave, but the older man is lonely and hesitant to leave the comfort of the circus. Instead, he begins to recount how he once joined a circus, a journey that began with him hopping on a train to nowhere in particular.

It’s then that Water for Elephants transitions through time with the help of a frame story, taking us back to the moment the younger Jacob (Grant Gustin) jumped on the train. Where the older Jacob remembers the time fondly, I doubt the younger one would agree. Jacob runs away due to his grief, having lost his parents in a terrible car accident. Dressed in a business suit and with a tear-streaked face, he jumps on the railway car and rides off, wanting to leave everything behind him.

August (Paul Alexander Nolan), Marlena (Isabella McCalla) and Jacob (Grant Gustin). Water for Elephants
August (Paul Alexander Nolan), Marlena (Isabella McCalla) and Jacob (Grant Gustin). Water for Elephants (Matthew Murphy).

He doesn’t account for the car belonging to a traveling circus, and the workers are less than thrilled to see the stowaway. They are ready to throw him off or leave him behind, but Jacob ends up convincing August (Nolan), the ring leader, to keep him on with a bit of help from his new friend Camel (Stan Brown). Completing menial jobs, Jacob gains notoriety within the circus with his knowledge of animals thanks to his father, a vet. 

With the circus circling the drain and losing their prized horse, August is convinced they need a new act—Cue Rosie, an elephant that is the absolute definition of a showstopper. Can Jacob and Marlena train Rosie to be a true star, or will August’s temper (or the budding feelings between Jacob and Marlena) spell trouble for the circus?

With impressive stunts and puppetry, this Imperial Theatre musical is genuinely a spectacle

When planning our most recent trip to NYC, Water for Elephants was at the top of my and my friend’s list of shows we wanted to see. I was familiar with the story, having seen the film quite a few times when it came out, so I was interested in how the musical would tell this story of grief, love, and finding yourself at a circus. More so the first two, but you get the idea.

Keeping the circus theme in mind, many aspects of Water for Elephants work well for a stage adaptation. Growing up, I went to the circus frequently, despite my irrational fear of clowns because it was something exciting that my mother could afford to take me and my siblings. The out-of-this-world feats and flips were always jaw-dropping, both for their impressiveness and the hint of danger that follows. This feeling is apparent in every scene of this show, as Water for Elephants brings the circus to NYC.

While there aren’t any real animals on stage, with the menagerie of either puppets or people in costumes, the rest of the circus acts are done entirely on stage. Water For Elephants contains many aerial tricks, such as climbing poles and dangerous-appearing high-flying flips and falls, bringing the circus to life. It reminded me so much of Cirque du Soleil, which seems to be the vibes they were going for. It was something wonderful to behold, especially in the crowded world of NYC.

The Cast of Water for Elephants Musical
The Cast of Water for Elephants. (Matthew Murphy).

Paired with colorful sets and costumes and the uniquely designed animals that add another layer to the show, Water for Elephants is truly a spectacle that must be seen on stage to be fully comprehended. It’s a feast for the eyes, as I haven’t quite seen anything like it on stage before.

The puppets are a feat unto themselves, especially Rosie the elephant. For most of Act I, Rosie appears in pieces, such as a leg or a trunk, assembling at the closing moments before intermission. When she finally came together, the giant creature was incredible to see, as I had no idea how a show could pull off something like an elephant on the stage. But they absolutely did, and Rosie is easily one of the best parts of the show. I’m sure many in attendance would agree.

A forgettable story and musical numbers plague Water for Elephants 

While the show is a spectacle to behold, there are some significant issues with Water for Elephants. For the story itself, this isn’t something just for the musical but for Gruen’s novel in general. Before going into the musical, the story I had in my head was nothing like the one that played out on stage. You couldn’t have convinced me there wasn’t a fire that burned down the circus tent and August inside it. I wondered out loud how they would showcase the fire in the theatre.

To my surprise, that doesn’t happen, nor is it in the film or the book. Instead, something entirely different occurs at the show’s climax, which felt odd and left those around me in the theater scratching their heads. I initially thought they had made the change for the stage production, but no, it follows relatively closely to the novel and the film. 

I thought I had just forgotten because so much time had passed since I last thought of Water for Elephants, but the following day, after seeing the stage production, I found that was not the case. I forgot large parts of the production in under 24 hours, such as “Hey, what happened at the end of Act I?” which you would think an enormous elephant coming onto stage would be memorable.

And yet, it wasn’t. It took RJ and I quite a bit to remember Rosie’s first full-body appearance, and we still can’t tell you which musical number accompanied it. Some moments are emblazoned in my mind, such as the first musical number with Jacob on top of the train, but most of the show didn’t leave much of an impression on me, except for the circus-like stunts. There isn’t a single song I can pick out, not one that I found myself humming or singing later because I couldn’t get it out of my head.

What Water for Elephants does well, it does incredibly well, but most of the show feels basic and unmemorable, which is sad for what could have been an epic story of love and finding oneself.

Grant Gustin & Samantha Gershman are the saving graces of this musical

I know that I just said that it was unmemorable, but that isn’t to imply that there are not great aspects of this musical. The incredible performances of Grant Gustin and understudy Samantha Gershman as leads Jacob and Marlena made this show watchable, even enjoyable in the scenes they shared, as their chemistry was undeniable.

Grant Gustin carries the show on his shoulders as both the star power and lead of Water for Elephants. He’s one of the main reasons people are showing up in droves to see the musical, per those around us in the line wrapping around the block waiting to get in. The excitement about seeing him in person was palpable, I know it was for me having watched him on Glee, then as The Flash for over a decade.

Grant Gustin 100 percent lives up to the hype; he’s every ounce of the performer as you’ve come to expect him to be. He takes this character and does his absolute best to make him likable and charismatic, which he easily does. His singing is lovely, certainly one of the best voices in the cast.

Typically, Marlena is played by Isabelle McCalla, but our performance featured Samantha Gershman. Gershman is just as good, if not better, than Gustin, providing the other half of the emotional crux of the musical. She was delicate and powerful all in one performance, playing a woman stuck in an abusive situation. She finds strength through Jacob and Rosie, and Gershman conveys that with ease.

Water for Elephants is worth a ticket at least once

Because of our two leads, stunts, sets, and costumes, Water for Elephants is worth at least one ticket to the circus. Unfortunately, due to the forgettable story and lackluster songs, it’s not at the top of my list to attend again. I think it’s great to see with someone who hasn’t seen it before, so you can experience the highlights through their eyes.

Is Water for Elephants deserving the Best Musical nomination for the 77th Tony Awards? Yes, as it is something magical to behold due to the things happening on stage. But I believe one of the other nominees is more deserving of the win.

Water for Elephants is currently playing at the Imperial Theatre in NYC

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

Brian Kitson has 35 posts and counting. See all posts by Brian Kitson