‘Water for Elephants’ Theater Review: “I’ve Never Hated Any Show More”

Everything is so exaggerated and phony that it’s hard to believe the director is the same Jessica Stone responsible for the charming, imaginative Tony Award winner 'Kimberly Akimbo'.

The cast of ‘Water for Elephants’ is efficient, but no one has the range or power to ground the show in authenticity, and the score fails to demonstrate a shred of tenderness or class. Matthew Murphy

After suffering through the new Broadway musical The Notebook, I thought I had seen the worst of what the 2024 season would bring. I was wrong. I had not seen Water for Elephants yet. Now I have. It can’t get any deadlier than this.

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Based on another novel that has outlived its time and now sits gathering dust on the shelves of libraries on the verge of extinction, this truncated pastiche of life in the circus has pacing issues galore, and clocking in at nearly three hours feels almost as long, repetitive and exhausting as the decades it takes for its story to unfold. Basic plot: During the Depression, a lost, homeless and sad young man of Polish descent named Jacob Jankowski is so despondent after the death of his parents in an automobile accident that he drops out of medical school and hits the rails without focus or purpose. When his boxcar comes to the end of the line, it’s in the middle of nowhere, stuck in a line of trucks on their way to the next one-night stand of a second-rate traveling show called the Benzini Bros. Circus. Desperately in need of money with nowhere to go and nothing else to do, he signs on for one night to water the animals, the lowest job in the circus. Using his minor skills as a would-be doctor, he impresses the boss enough to land a promotion to circus veterinarian and stick around for the next 40 years.

Like The Notebook, the leading character is double cast at two different ages, telling his saga as both an old man looking back through the decades of his life (played by able musical-comedy veteran Gregg Edelman) and as the handsome younger version of Jacob, played by dashing Grant Gustin. From here on, we watch him grow, surrounded by the carny people who invade his life—including August, the jealous and brutal owner-ringmaster (a scene-stealing Paul Alexander Nolan); Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), his beautiful high-wire star and wife whom Jacob eventually marries; a nasty, knife-throwing clown (Joe De Paul); a tragic drunken roustabout everyone protects (Stan Brown); and a parade of acrobats, jugglers, and tightrope walkers who literally knock each other unconscious trying to keep the audience awake. The choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll is nothing to write home about, but it’s a slight cut above the yawn-inducing anesthesia of The Notebook. The musical numbers are little more than an energetic aerobics class, seem inserted for no other purpose than extending the running time beyond intermission, and have a lot to do with ropes. The huge cast stays busy—climbing poles, swinging hammers, dodging knives, and flying through the air on Peter Pan strings.

If that’s all you require to be entertained, at ticket prices so inflated they could pay off a second mortgage, then you might enjoy Water for Elephants. But don’t expect any elephants. Except for one irritatingly humongous paper puppet manipulated by puppeteers who shuffle around the stage like the horse manipulators in War Horse. Everything is so exaggerated and phony that it’s hard to believe the director is the same Jessica Stone responsible for the charming, imaginative Tony Award winner Kimberly Akimbo. Overwhelmed this time by so much hardware, she doesn’t show much concern about the emotional development that might help us better understand the characters in the noisy, overpopulated Water for Elephants. The cast is efficient, but no one has the range or power to ground the show in authenticity, and the score fails to demonstrate a shred of tenderness or class. For the big 11:00 number, there’s an unsurpassed horror called “You’ve Got Nothing”, performed by the show’s villain. These are the lyrics:

“You put a ring on a finger and what do you get?

You get happily married and a little in debt.

Then after a decade of marital bliss 

You find out it don’t amount to a thimble of piss.”

This is great songwriting? I survived to the end, but I’ve never valued any show less or hated any show more.

Water for Elephants | 2hrs 40 mins. One intermission | Imperial Theatre | 249 W 45TH ST | Buy Tickets Here

‘Water for Elephants’ Theater Review: “I’ve Never Hated Any Show More”