WATER FOR ELEPHANTS Review — Run Away and Join the Circus!

We’re not long into Act I when circus magic’s tight hold on us is sealed by a dancing puppet…

He’s a liberty horse who knows how to do tricks under the circus tent, even when there are no reins to guide him.  He is a star of the circus and big ticket draw.  He’s hurt— very hurt. Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), the horse’s handler, gently sings Easy  to him as she strokes his larger than her torso regal head in her lap.  The horse speaks to her and us in the form of an aerial dancer rising on silks. We see him whinny and pound the ground with his wounded hoof, though he, like our disbelief, is suspended in the air.   Soon after, as events unfold, we watch his pain end and his spirit rise in another silks dance when the newly appointed circus veterinarian, young Jacob Jankowski (Grant Gustin)  does a mercy killing.  

We are entranced.  We forget that this is a puppet and a dancer who is wordlessly showing us their part of the story.  It’s more than puppetry magic.  This is the CIRCUS! In this reviewer’s opinion, it is also one of  the many non-stop WOWs that make this a memorable hit show.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS Magic is Powered by Circus Arts

Take-your-breath-away circus gymnastic feats merge and emerge from up-tempo dancing.  As the supporting cast sings The Road Don’t Make You Young, one after another shows us their stuff on ropes or jumping ropes, gliding, sliding, spiraling, flying, and more. The ensemble dancing is tight AND it is happening on many planes.  There are times when the performers feel like they are flying over our heads!  It’s fast and engaging, and  shows us even more than the storyline that the circus is a family.  In every corner of the stage we are seeing not just athletic feats that stun, but trust made visceral as performers throw and catch each other with seamless grace.


In between these circus acts there is a story with adult themes of marital abuse, mental illness, and extra-marital sex.  Marlena is married to a gratuitously cruel and unstable circus owner, August (Paul Alexander Nolan) who is becoming increasingly physical in his abuse of her, and more and more sadistic to his circus underlings.  August’s deterioration is the driver of the action. The denouement is a circus stampede of legend, recounted to us by an older Jacob Jankowski (Gregg Edelman) whom we see sometimes side by side with his younger self, and sometimes in the now when he is trying to avoid return to the nursing home where he currently and unhappily lives.  

The narrative sticks closely to the namesake novel by Sara Gruen.  In this reviewer’s opinion, the R rating the story would otherwise warrant is dwarfed by the circus arts, puppetry, dance and song that are the Water for Elephants hallmark.  Bring your five year old to this as their first Broadway show?  Heck yes!  

This is a dance lovers performance for sure. You too might think that the music likely won’t stamp this show in our memories,.  One exception is the declaration of their love by Marlena and Jacob in a song titled Wild, which seems headed for the canon of popular love duets every crooner will want to perform. We also get an ode to an elephant contending for a spot on a love song playlist. 

For admirers of puppetry, know that you’ll get an elephant who excites more than the one you ogle at the zoo.


The leads -- and the entire cast-- engage us at every moment. From left to right-- Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabella McCalla, and Grant Gustin


Grant Gustin, Isabelle McCalla,  Gregg Edelman, Paul Alexander Nolan, Stan Brown, Joe De Paul, Sara Gettelfinger  and Wade McCollum, and featuring Brandon Block, Antoine Boissereau, Rachael Boyd, Paul Castree, Ken Wulf Clark, Taylor Colleton, Gabriel Olivera de Paula Costa, Isabella Luisa Diaz, Samantha Gershman, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Nicolas Jelmoni, Caroline Kane, Harley Ross Beckwith McLeish, Michael Mendez, Samuel Renaud, Marissa Rosen, Alexandra Gaelle Royer, Asa Somers, Charles South, Sean Stack, Matthew Varvar and Michelle West.


WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is based on the New York Times Bestselling novel by Sara Gruen.

Book by  Rick Elice, score by PigPen Theatre Co. and directed by Jessica Stone.

Circus design by Shana Carroll, choreography by Jesse Robb  and Shana Carroll, scenic design by Takeshi Kata, costume design by David Israel Reynoso, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Walter Trarbach , projections by David Bengali, hair & makeup design by Campbell Young Associates, puppetry design by Ray Wetmore  & JR Goodman , and Camille Labarre , music supervision and arrangements by  Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Benedict Braxton-Smith , orchestrations by Daryl Waters , Benedict Braxton-Smith and August Eriksmoen, music direction by Elizabeth Doran, fight direction by Cha Ramos , production stage management by Timothy R. Semon, and casting by Tara Rubin Casting.


Open Run

Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th Street
New York, New York



For more information and tickets visit the Water for Elephants website.

Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.

Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.


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