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Water for Elephants

A group of people on a stage

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The Ensemble of Water for Elephants (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Water for Elephants

By David Schultz

A new theatrical adaption of Sarah Gruen's popular 2006 novel, Water for Elephants, has set up its Big Top smack in Times Square. Wonder of wonders, it culls much from the novel and trims the excess to streamline the drama to its fullest extent. As in most adaptations, there inevitably are dry patches with the dreaded "book trouble" curse trailing behind it. But all those quibbles are brushed aside as this imaginative collaboration works its magic spell on the audience.

First though, the narrator, Mr. Jake Jankowski (Greg Edelman) greets us in the present day, as he wistfully looks back on his past. He resides in a nursing home and has stepped out of his dreary existence and wandered into the closing hours of a traveling circus in his town. His connection with the circus life is deep and with a history that unfurls as he narrates his past life.

In episodic scenes, the younger version of Jake (Grant Gustin) materializes, and in cinematic episodes we follow him as he is shattered by a family tragedy as his parents are killed in a car crash. To relive himself of his inner pain, he drops out of his veterinary school, dives headfirst into the unknown, and hops a train going who knows where. Turns out he plops onto a train with a motley group of circus performers heading to their next gig.

The struggling Benzini Circus is decidedly low rent, with not many animals in tow. The creatures on board are not too lively and some are ill with overwork. Jake finds the circus folk initially unseemly and surly, even those who grew up speaking Polish, as he did. But his expertise in veterinary skills comes in handy at just the right moment.

Their featured horse, Silver Star, has a worn-out hoof and a fracture that is hindering the performance. An acrobat and lead female performer, Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), senses that Jake can assist in Star's recovery. She happens to be married to the tyrannical, control freak ringmaster, August (Paul Alexander Nolan), who has doubts that he can assist, but grudgingly offers his horse for Jake to administer his expertise. The stage is set for the drama to unfold. Naturally, go figure, Jake forms a romantic attraction to Marlena and the triangle is set for the paint by numbers plot.

A group of people sitting on a stage

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Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, Grant Gustin (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

There is something comforting and delightful in getting to watch these circus folk work and build onto the stage a visual acrobatic sense of community. Acrobatic circus performers dazzle in the early scenes -- much of the ensemble are actually circus performers. The variety of astounding skills are deftly shown. Balancing on one hand on top of a fellow performer, triple backflips, eye-defying routines with a bit of juggling, all are strewn throughout the production. All this before the arrival of Rosie the elephant.

Director Jessica Stone gives a nod to the musical The Lion King in her comingling of human and animal depictions. But her savvy take works with the audience to meet her halfway to seeing the artistry on display. A surreal, dreamlike sequence occurs early on, when Jake attempts to help the horse Star recuperate. The horse is too ill to perform and needs to be put down. The gorgeous scene incorporates circus performer Antoine Boissereau covered in a half-masked, equine outfit mingled with a long swath of white silk, gracefully captures the movements as he rises high above the stage. His finale and death are intricately performed with astonishing gravitas, among the most hauntingly beautiful moments I've ever seen on stage.

A person in a leotard from a rope

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Isabelle McCalla, Grant Gustin (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The amusing, late in the first act appearance of Rosie the Elephant is charming and sets the stage for all the convoluted shenanigans that transpire in the second act. The pachyderm seems horribly stubborn and needs to be trained soon for its debut in this third-rate circus. Actually, when Jake speaks to her in Polish, Rosie responds and all is well - it turns out that she only understands the language of her original trainer, who was Polish. August The Ringmaster, bad mean and suspicious; Jake, swooning and falling in love with sad Marlena, bullied by her husband. Sigh.It doesn't take long before all obvious plot devices kick in full gear.

Scenic design by Takeshi Kata uses an understated background that is perfectly incorporated with the dustbowl sepia toned projections by David Bengali. Choreography by Jesse Robb & Shanna Carroll is infused with inventive circus design, again by Ms. Carroll. The eclectic musical score and lyrics are composed by the theatrical collective, Pigpen Theater Co. A sophisticated m lange of bluegrass and blues with a nod to the musical stylings of the 1930's -- the era of the tale -- is perfectly rendered.

A group of people on a stage

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The ensemble of Water for Elephants (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The acrobatic professionals, a Montreal-based collective called The 7 Fingers, are the real star of the show. The wow factor is in their veins. This three-dimensional circus onstage does capture all the exasperating and exuberant thrills seen from behind the scenes.

The circus has always had an alluring mystique and this visual rapturous rendering of a depression era travelling circus captures the wonderment, and dark side of the Greatest Show on Earth. The unsurprising denouement of the musical doesn't truly matter when and if one gives in to its inherent charms. When Rosie the elephant bats her long, luscious eyelashes, who are we to resist?

Water for Elephants

At The Imperial Theatre

249 West 45th Street

2 hours 40 minutes