REVIEW: Broadway’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS Says “Come to the Circus!”

The cast of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS - Photo by Matthew Murphy
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In her critically acclaimed New York Times Bestselling novel, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, author Sara Gruen writes, “Life is the most spectacular show on earth.” This arresting story is the basis for what will now become the most spectacular show on Broadway as WATER FOR ELEPHANTS opens March 21, 2024 at the Imperial Theatre (249 West 45 Street) with a book by three-time Tony Award nominee Rick Elice (Jersey Boys, Peter and the Starcatcher), a soaring score by the acclaimed PigPen Theatre Co. (The Tale of Despereaux) and direction by Tony Award nominee Jessica Stone (Kimberly Akimbo).

Marissa Rosen, Gregg Edelman, Taylor Colleton, Sara Gettelfinger, Joe De Paul, and Stan Brown – Photo by Matthew Murphy

The suspenseful and heartfelt story of memory and interconnectedness begins with loss. Elderly Jacob Jankowski (the always great Gregg Edelman) lives a humdrum existence in a nursing home, until the day the circus comes to town. Transported back to when he was 23, “Jake” (Grant Gustin, in a buoyant Broadway debut) recalls how his parents were killed in a car crash, just before his graduation from veterinarian school. Dropping out of Cornell, he hops a train that lands him in a Depression-era traveling circus. Jake becomes the circus vet and meets Marlena (the shiny Isabelle McCalla) a beautiful circus performer. The bond they form training the noble elephant, Rosie, leads to love. But Marlena’s sadistic husband (a fearful Paul Alexander Nolan) is the ringmaster and stands in their way; abusing Marlena, Rosie, all the circus animals and employees. While love does not conquer all, it does conquer a lot in this original piece that is an exciting melding of musical theater with the circus.

Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, and Grant Gustin – Photo by Matthew Murphy

They fly through the air with the greatest of ease… literally. Right in front of your eyes is the show within the show – the circus. The most astonishing artistry included acrobatics, hand-balancing, tossing partners, aerials, gymnastics, trapeze, clowning, juggling and pole dancing. All interwoven into a big bang of a Broadway book with music and choreography. It was stunning to see the exquisite work, to hold your breath as the kinkers performed their magic moves. And the puppets. The menagerie of circus animals was created in individual splendor, each handled by their own puppeteer. But nothing was more riveting than the emergence of the star elephant, Rosie. One huge leg at time, she stomped her way across the stage. Then, the entire elephant… appeared! That tremendous puppet was so relatable, we felt the same kinship with Rosie as the kinkers.

Isabelle McCalla and Grant Gustin – Photo by Matthew Murphy

The outstanding ensemble work was so strong, one felt the family created by being on the road for so many years. The cast stars Grant Gustin (The Flash, Glee) in his Broadway debut, Isabelle McCalla (The Prom, Shucked), four-time Tony Award nominee Gregg Edelman (City of Angels), Drama Desk and Outer Critic Circle Award nominee Paul Alexander Nolan (Slave Play), Stan Brown (Homicide: Life in the Streets), Joe De Paul (Cirque du Soleil’s Dralion), Sara Gettelfinger (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and Wade McCollum (Wicked) and features Brandon Block, Antoine Boissereau, Rachael Boyd, Paul Castree, Ken Wulf Clark, Taylor Colleton, Gabriel Olivera de PaulaCosta, 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.

The cast of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS – Photo by Matthew Murphy

And boy, can they sing. Yes, this is a musical with an innovative score composed by PigPen Theatre Company. The seven-member collective was first formed 17 years ago when they were in college at Carnegie Mellon. The group took inspiration from the popular music of the 1930s time period: bluegrass, folk, and jazz. There is some circus-type fanfare, but the overall sound of the show is quieter, more introspective—to match the way the show is structured.

Grant Gustin and the cast of Water For Elephants – Photo by Matthew Murphy

Get ready to be dazzled for an experience that lives on, and immerse yourself into the 1930s circus known as Benzini Brothers. Afterall: “Memory is not just about the past. It’s about the future.”

Tickets for WATER FOR ELEPHANTS are available at the Imperial Theatre box office, at, or by phone at 212.239.6200, and range from $50 – $199. The playing schedule is as follows: Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, and Sunday at 3pm.

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