‘Water for Elephants’ Broadway Review: The Big Top Has Really Shrunk

Disney Theatricals can let out a sigh of relief. Its “Lion King” franchise on cute animal puppets is safe. Very safe.

A musical adaptation of Sara Gruen’s novel “Water for Elephants” opened Thursday at the Imperial Theatre, and as one would expect, the show ends with a stampede of wild circus critters — lions and tigers and giraffes, oh my! — that have been featured here and there throughout the evening. One of them is absolutely terrific. It is the white horse named Silver Star that the circus’s top headliner, Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), rides into the big top to spectacular effect.

When Silver Star injures itself, the circus’ new vet, Jacob (Grant Gustin), insists that this beautiful animal “has to be put down.” Before that violent moment arrives, Marlena cares for Silver Star as best she can, and in an extended solo, the horse, as played by Antoine Boissereau, performs an exquisite aerial ballet. The horse is suggested by nothing more than its head and a very long white scarf that Boissereau wraps around himself to ascend, float, swirl around and completely enchant the audience. (The puppet design is by Ray Wetmore, Jr Goodman and Camille Labarre.) It’s a moving effect that is never repeated with any of the other many puppet animals that follow.

Book writer Rick Elice quickly undercuts Boissereau’s magic by deflating the drama of Silver Star’s execution. In the movie version of “Water for Elephants,” August, the evil owner of the circus, forbids Jacob from shooting the horse, since he wants to get a few more days of work out of the animal. By disobeying the boss, Jacob risks not only his job but his life when he puts the animal down. (August has this unpleasant habit of throwing people off the circus train at top speed if they don’t agree with him.)

As Elice tells the story, however, August (Paul Alexander Nolan) hands Jacob the gun, encouraging him to kill Silver Star asap. That adjustment gets the story moving faster, but it also makes the scene far less dramatic.

More conflict is eliminated when Marlena, who has never worked with an elephant, expresses nothing but enthusiasm about getting atop the huge creature named Rosie. In the movie, Reese Witherspoon’s Marlena expresses enormous trepidation, as well she should.

In addition to Boissereau’s horse, “Water for Elephants” gets off to a good start when a number of talented acrobats set up the circus tent for the first time. The Cirque du Soleil effects (“circus design” by Shana Carroll) are dazzling when they are first introduced. By the time the second act rolls around, the acrobats have been turned into filler by director Jessica Stone to prop up a story with little drama going on – unless your idea of drama is contemplating what happens when acrobats miss their mark.

Because Gustin and McCalla are stuck playing such colorless characters, it leaves Nolan’s wild and demented August to carry the show. Any musical can use a good bad guy, but the songwriters known as Pigpen Theatre Co. give this villain nothing but screeds to sing. Elsewhere, as one might expect from a show about show business, Pigpen borrows mightily from John Kander and Fred Ebb.

Near the end of Act 1, Rosie the Elephant is intriguingly introduced in pieces. First, we get a peek at her trunk. Then we see one leg followed by another and another and another. Walter Trarbach’s sound design provides ominous thumps as each humongous limb descends. Eventually, the very big puppet appears in toto. It’s a very literal and kind of tacky rendering of an elephant. This Rosie pales considerably next to the horses in “War Horse” or any of the animals in “The Lion King.”

Equally disappointing is Stone’s visualization of the animal stampede, which is delivered in a series of unimaginative tableaux under Bradley King’s strobe-lighting design.

The big top has really shrunk.

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