Thursday, May 16, 2024

Water for Elephants: Big Top

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Broadway circus musical Water for Elephants, culled from Sara Gruen’s 2007 bestseller, assembles a cast of thirty singers, dancers, acrobats and puppeteers, some of whom have performed with legitimate circuses, some with the Cirque du Soleil, some with the Montreal artist collective The 7 Fingers (known in Canada by its full-length French title, Les 7 doigts de la main). I’ve never had such a good time reading the cast bios in a playbill. The smart, snappy book of Water for Elephants is by Rick Elice, who wrote Peter and the Starcatcher; the songs, the best of which are roisterous and infectious and have a folky twang, are by Pigpen Theatre Company, which created the delightful offbeat fairy tale The Old Man and the Old Moon. Jessica Stone’s production is simultaneously expansive and intimate; Takeshi Kata’s set is a series of scaffolds backed by a cyclorama with projections by David Bengali. The show is mixed-media in the truest sense – the choreography of the musical numbers by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll (who is also credited with the circus design) always incorporates gymnastics and puppetry.

For the first act, a hefty but soaring ninety minutes, the show is blissful. Like the novel, it’s the story of a young man named Jacob Jankowski (Grant Gustin) who hops a freight during the Depression after his parents die in a car accident, leaving no money behind, and he’s forced to drop out of Princeton just shy of a veterinary degree. By chance the train he steals a ride on is part of a struggling traveling circus. He begs a day’s work for food; when the owner-ringmaster, a fast-talking con man named August (Paul Alexander Nolan), finds out about his background in veterinary medicine, and Jacob diagnoses the problem with the circus’s hobbled star animal performer, a horse named Silver Star ridden in the ring by August’s wife Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), August hires him to take care of the animals. The narrative is a series of flashbacks; the frame story is told by the aging Mr. Jankowski (Gregg Edelman), a lonely, ornery widower who’s miserably stuck in a retirement home but manages to check out the big top when it flies through town. He arrives too late to see the show, but as the troupe is packing up he ingratiates himself with Charlie, the owner, presenting his credentials: he spent one summer with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth that turned out to be its last before a legendary disaster erased it. Charlie (also played by Nolan) treats Mr. Jankowski to a few belts of whiskey and invites him to tell the story of how it happened.

When Jacob hires on to the Benzini Brothers, Silver Star is failing; Jacob has to put him down, in perhaps the most unconventionally poignant piece of staging and physical inventiveness I’ve ever seen on a stage, performed by Antoine Boissereau, who is simultaneously a dancer, an acrobat and a puppeteer. Earlier Marlena calms the injured horse with the ballad “Easy,” in which she sings that he’s “not made of steel but made of water,” and the combination of a rope suggesting a horse’s head and Boissereau’s astonishing fluidity actualizes the metaphor. (There’s a breathtaking moment when the dancer hangs from the rope by his neck.) Silver Star’s death is almost impossible to describe: having watched a horse impersonated by a human being in a series of thrilling rope tricks, you feel you’re getting to see flesh made spirit. But August finds a replacement for his star – he buys an elephant named Rosie from a dead circus. At first Rosie seems untrained but the Polish-American Jacob discovers by accident that the creature is actually a highly intelligent performer who responds to Polish commands. Five company members – Caroline Kane, Paul Castree, Michael Mendez, Charles South and Sean Stack – play Rosie, who is at different times a leg and hoof, a pair of acrobats one on top of the other wagging a pair of floppy ears, a shadow puppet and a trunk tucked into a puppeteer’s arm. In the first-act finale, “The Grand Spec,” she finally appears as a life-size puppet with silvery gray skin who wins every heart in the audience when she bats her enormous eyes.

Gruen’s book, and the enjoyable 2011 movie version, pit the kind-hearted novice Jacob against Marlena’s paranoid schizophrenic husband. (In the novel there are two villains but both dramatic versions wisely pare them down to one.) August is capable of cruelty to both the animals and Marlena, whom the young man falls for. He also becomes friends with two big top veterans, the diminutive clown Walter (Joe De Paul) and the aging Camel (Stan Brown), an alcoholic whose body has begun to succumb to the effects of the poisonous cheap booze he imbibes. The story is grim and it gets grimmer as it goes along; Gruen might have been thinking of William Lindsay Gresham’s sensational hard-boiled late-forties carny novel Nightmare Alley, which became a wonderful movie with Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. (Guillermo Del Toro remade it in 2021 in a version that was considerably less wonderful.) What the musical does that neither Gruen nor Richard LaGravenese and Francis Lawrence, the talented writer and director of the movie, thought to do was to balance the downbeat elements with Jacob’s other love affair, with the circus. That’s the emotional undercurrent of the first act, and it makes the show not just a deeply gratifying spectacle but an inspiriting one. Unfortunately, there’s no way Elice could possibly sustain it after intermission without rewriting the story. Act two descends into melodrama, and the musical seems to lose confidence – the big climax is so lacking in visual imagination that it feels as if Stone and her collaborators have run out of ideas. (It’s even amateurish.) But half a great musical isn’t nothing, though given what we’ve just experienced, the conclusion of Water for Elephants is more disappointing than the typical second-act letdown of dozens of musicals.

The show has a very fine ensemble. The melodrama undercuts Nolan’s performance in act two, but he’s very strong until then in a role that harks back to tin-plated musical-theatre anti-heroes like Pal Joey and Chicago’s Billy Flynn as well as the symbolic Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret. His high point is his big first-act number “The Lion Has Got No Teeth.” McCalla, most recently seen on stage in Shucked, is a magnetic Marlena. De Paul, Brown, and Sara Gettelfinger, Marissa Rosen and Taylor Colleton as a trio of cooch dancers are all splendid. Gustin is a trifle bland but he has a lovely singing voice and he can dance too. But he’s overpowered by Gregg Edelman as the older Jacob, whom Elice has threaded through the musical just as Gruen keeps returning to him in the book. I’ve been a fan of Edelman’s since he played the detective novelist-turned-screenwriter in City of Angels three and a half decades ago. He’s an alumnus of many Broadway musicals, in leading roles and supporting ones; it’s cheering to see him take on another big part. Water for Elephants boasts an enormous load of sheer showmanship but Edelman is its heart and soul.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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