Thursday, April 18, 2024

REVIEW: Water For Elephants

Review of the Saturday, April 13, 2024 evening performance at the Imperial Theatre in New York City. Starring Grant Gustin, Samantha Gershman, Gregg Edelman, Paul Alexander Nolan, Stan Brown, Joe DePaul, Sara Gettlefinger and Wade McCollum. Music and lyrics by Pig Pen Theatre Co. Book by Rick Elice. Based on the novel by Sara Gruen. Scenic design by Takeshi Kata. Costume design by David Israel Reynoso. Lighting design by Bradley King. Projection design by David Bengali. Sound design by Walter Trarbach. Puppet design by Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman and Camille Labarre. Circus design by Shana Carroll. Choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll. Direction by Jessica Stone. 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.

One of the many wonderful things that came to light when we saw Water For Elephants was that director Jessica Stone does as brilliant a job with large scale shows as she does with smaller, more intimate shows. Physically, this production bears little resemblance to Kimberly Akimbo, but emotionally, they do share something very important. Both are careful to present the vulnerabilities and complexities in all of their characters; the villains have good in them, the heroes have failings. And it is this humanity that she mines that makes both shows so special. 

Based on the popular novel by Sara Gruen, book writer Rick Elice and Ms. Stone have
 crafted this sweeping tale into a truly theatrical piece, where major events are presented in ways only stage magic allows, and the intimate human drama, though thoughtfully tempered, is just as dramatic. Elice weaves the memories of our older narrator seamlessly into the action of the moment, often overlapping, revealing revelations to both audience and characters alike. This book is solid; epic and small, romantic and thrilling, and always in service to the story and its themes. Even going in knowing the novel (and the popular film), I was fully invested in the characters and the plot, feeling it all as if for the first time.

The score, by Pig Pen Theatre Co., is a perfect match for the book, weaving traditional Broadway style with songs evocative of depression-era folk, jazz and more. And still, it feels very "now," despite thankfully avoiding the overused center stage, belt your face off, option up Dear Even Hansen button. Guess what? The audience appreciated each number just as much (dreaded 'woo hoo's and all). What a relief to find that audiences can still appreciate masterful talent that hasn't been American Idol-ized. This collective of artists has created a panoramic score filled with thrills and surprises (it is a circus show, after all), lush with insight and emotion, not to mention some of the tightest harmonies in recent memory (witness "The Road Don't Make You Young"), Humor, sorrow, anger and even terrifying danger are equally brilliant in their musical execution. As good as the score is on one hearing as it is happening, I can't wait to get my hands on the cast recording and dig deeper.

(Author's note: As I write this and look back at the above, it occurs to me that I can't remember the last time I had so much to say about a new musical's book and score!)

Of course, being a show where the circus is the central setting, there has to be a certain amount of, well, circus, and to that end, there's an embarrassment of riches to be seen and felt. Stone is careful to dole these elements out at specific times - story needs first, always - not only during the "show," but at other times, like raising the big top. Craftily, she also uses a variety of acrobatics, rope tricks, and stunts to tell other parts of the story. A complicated series of tableaux, for example, uses an exhilarating mix of tumbling, light, shadow and freezes to portray a deadly stampede of exotic, frightened animals. It is in these scenes that one can truly appreciate the jaw-dropping artistry of all the theatrical elements coming together. The circus design and choreography (by Shana Carroll and Jesse Robb) and creative puppetry (designed in a variety of imaginative ways by Ray Wetmore) are especially thrilling in conjunction with the more traditional theater design. 
David Israel Reynoso's colorful costume work and Takeshi Kata's scenic elements never forget that this is a poor circus during the Depression, while Bradley King's lighting is consistently dramatic and helps define "show time" and "reality." That said, the whole thing feels breathtaking and spectacular.

Among the ensemble, there are six members who are extraordinary circus performers, equally thrilling on ropes, trapeze and with death defying acrobatics. Isabella Luisa Diaz, Gabriel Olivera de Paula Costa, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Samuel Renaud and Alexandra Gaelle Royer are each exceptional. Their skills are inspiring and it is often hard to believe what you are seeing. The sixth artist, Antoine Boissereau, is featured as Silver Star, the horse that is the star of the circus, and performs a silks ballet (the gorgeous "Easy") far above our heads. That number may just be the single staging highlight of the season, power and emotionally stunning. The entire ensemble is, to a person, a triple-threat. Make that quadruple-threat.

The principal cast is just as excellent. Gregg Edelman, as the older version of our hero, is as usual, reliable, and goes way beyond the memory play narrator trope deftly blurring the line between observer and participant. As the hardened by life and a seething vessel of anger, Wade McCollum gives his role as head roustabout a multifaceted, layered treatment, and watching his character's arc play out was a roller coaster of emotion. Similarly, Joe DePaul's turn as an embittered, aging clown, is worth watching as it evolves. Right from the start, he is highly unlikable, but as the story evolves, and some truths come out, you find yourself invested in his outcome. As Barbara, the past her prime side show hoochie coochie dancer, Sara Gettlefinger is a brassy broad type who has seen it all, but is fierce in her need to protect her chosen circus family. She's one of those actors who is even interesting when she's just standing there. And then there's the sweet does-it-all circus man who, in the warm arms of Stan Brown, is the emotional center of the big top. (Brown, at 60, is making a wondrous Broadway debut!)

All the circuses have their star attraction, and Water For Elephants has theirs in a trio of leading players: one a modern Broadway veteran, one a popular TV star making his Broadway debut, and one a standby. The first, the veteran, Paul Alexander Nolan, is justifiably garnering awards buzz as August, the ringmaster of the on-the-brink circus. Nolan is equal parts slick con man, wicked charmer, and abuser. We are both captivated and repulsed by this man, and Nolan does not hold back; how August ends up is genuinely cathartic. He's never been better. The standby at our performance was Samantha Gershman, as Marlena, star of the show and August's wife. I'm sure Isabelle McCalla (pictured) is terrific in the role, but you'd never know Ms. Gershman hasn't played the role from the start - she holds nothing back, shows no fear, not even on the trapeze. I look forward to seeing her during what will be, I'm sure, a long career. And her chemistry with her leading man was palpable up in the mezzanine (witness the duet "Wild"). Finally, Grant Gustin of Glee and The Flash fame makes an accomplished debut. Sure, he has those matinee idol looks, but he also has the goods. His scene work is smooth and full of measured emotion, creating both a sympathetic and enigmatic character. Best of all, instead of going into Idol mode (of which he is more than capable), he dazzles with honest, character-driven choices in his singing. Not once does he resort to unnecessary screlting. No one in the cast does, and, frankly, it is a relief. 

In many ways, Water For Elephants is that increasingly rare breed - an old fashioned musical with a modern eye that stays true to its content. All of the elements support and build up each other, each guided by an accomplished creative team and one of the most solid casts Broadway has seen in a while. Is this the best new musical of the season? Possibly. One of the best of the season? Definitely.

📸: M. Murphy

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