'Water for Elephants' review — new musical beautifully juggles circus and theatre

Read our review of Water for Elephants on Broadway, a new musical at the Imperial Theatre based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Sara Gruen.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

The image of running away with the circus instantly conjures the romantic, if risky, notion of doing something adventurous and wild. In Water for Elephants, a surprising and satisfying new Broadway musical by Rick Elice (book) and PigPen Theatre Co. (music and lyrics), Jacob Jankowski journeys to the circus – twice – for reasons that are all his own.

Drawn from Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel-turned 2011 movie, the show fuses musical theatre and circus artistry. The story is filtered through sawdust-coated memories of nursing home resident Jacob (Gregg Edelman). He recalls his Depression-era younger days, when his plans to be a veterinarian get upended by a fatal family tragedy.

Broke, aimless, and achy with grief, young Jacob (Grant Gustin) hops a moving locomotive to Anywhere, U.S.A. Turns out he’s on the Benzini Brothers circus train, and it leads to a life Jacob never expected. He finds work, a close-knit community, two great loves – Marlena (Isabella McCalla) an equestrian headliner, and Rosie, a stubbornly untrainable elephant – plus danger from Marlena’s ringmaster husband, August (Paul Alexander Nolan).

On paper, it’s straightforward rom-dram stuff. On stage at the Imperial Theatre, everything ascends thanks to its energizing and poetic elements. Jacob’s story unfurls amid legit acts – acrobats, daredevils, trapeze swingers, and more – that add a different dimension.

The score is a folksy mix of bluegrass and blues that fits the 1930s like a glove. One wishes Jacob and Marlena’s big duet, “Wild,” didn’t meander so much lyrically. But, on the plus side, side characters also express themselves in song. After all, every circus member matters and makes the whole.

Director Jessica Stone (Kimberly Akimbo) deserves a big shout-out for combining all of the elements – the actors, circus feats, puppetry, song and dance breaks – so beautifully. Stone really can juggle.

Water for Elephants summary

Jacob Jankowski, a young man orphaned during the Depression, escapes with a traveling circus. He ends up falling for the enchanting circus star Marlena, whose husband, August, the ringmaster, abuses her as well as the elephant Rosie. Tensions eventually boil over.

The show marks the Broadway debut for Gustin, who sheds his superhero persona from TV’s The Flash and shows off low-key charm and fine musical theatre chops. Edelman, Nolan, and McCalla in particular are in great voice. In the 2011 movie, young Jacob was played by Robert Pattinson opposite Reese Witherspoon as Marlena and Christoph Waltz as Augst.

What to expect at Water for Elephants

One of the exciting things about the production is its kinetic energy and sense of motion. The Benzini Brothers train rolls from one town to the next, with a little nudge and clever stagecraft. Seeing the big tent get raised in no time flat before our eyes makes for a wonderfully theatrical moment.

The show is visually striking, especially Bradley King’s dramatic lighting and David Bengali’s projections. I found myself fixed on the vast projected backdrop of the sky that shifts from warm and inviting blue to a more forbidding and isolating orange streaked with gray. It’s like a giant mood ring.

Putting animals on stage is a tricky proposition. So puppets instead breathe life into a roaring lion, a pet pooch, a trumpeting elephant, and other circus beasts. An aerial silk artist transforms a mournful moment involving Marlena’s beloved horse into something unexpectedly poetic and poignant.

What audiences are saying about Water for Elephants

Leading up to publication, Water for Elephants had an overall 84% rating on Show-Score, with audiences embracing the circus-themed musical.

  • “An amazing show with constant motion and entertaining things happening no matter where you look on stage.” – Show-Score user Yakmage
  • “A dash of vaudeville, one part Cirque du Soleil, two parts circus, and a huge splash of old-fashioned Broadway–the perfect cocktail.” Show-Score user Ronald J
  • “Don’t see it you want sunshine blown from the stage: this one combines a dark and a romantic musical … with realistic acrobats.” - Show-Score user Cliff 8097
  • “It’s like a book musical with something more abstract – part Hal Prince, part Tommy Tune,” said a theatregoer exiting the Imperial Theatre after the show.

Read more audience reviews of Water for Elephants on Show-Score.

Who should see Water for Elephants

  • Those who can’t wait for the circus to come to town will be happy to get their fill of death-drops, dazzling cyr wheel spinners, and human-pretzel contortionists at this Broadway show.
  • Fans of Sara Gruen’s bestseller and the movie will be interested in seeing the musical’s unambiguous presentation of August's fate.
  • Theatregoers who enjoyed the current musical The Notebook, a romance told in an innovative way, will appreciate how Water for Elephants thinks out of the box – and into the center ring.

Learn more about Water for Elephants on Broadway

Step right up: With its key infusion of circus artistry, this production of Water for Elephants is a delightful musical diversion. It lets a popular book and movie sing in new ways.

Learn more and get tickets to Water for Elephants on New York Theatre Guide. Water for Elephants is at the Imperial Theatre.

Additional Water for Elephants content

Photo credit: Isabelle McCalla and Grant Gustin in Water for Elephants on Broadway. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Originally published on

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