Acrobats can't save Broadway circus

GOSSIP & RUMORS: Acrobats can’t save Broadway circus

Theater review


Two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission. At the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street.

There must be something in the water, because “Water for Elephants,” which opened Thursday night at the Imperial Theatre, is the third Broadway musical this season to be centered around an older man who sappily relives his youthful memories. 

Barry Manilow’s shuttered “Harmony” was the first, followed by “The Notebook” — this latest lacking musical features a score by PigPen Theatre Co. and a hokey book by Rick Elice. 

That drippy, “and-then-this-happened” frame story is part of Sara Gruen’s novel (and the 2011 film) — just as it was in Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook.” 

But, onstage, all the drama-killer flashbacks and flash-forwards tend to turn shows about flesh-and-blood people into sleepy wax museums — even one that takes place in a sporadically-dazzling circus.

This time, the fellow journeying to the past is Jacob Jankowski (Gregg Edelman), a former veterinarian who escapes his nursing home to pay O’Brien’s One-Ring Circus a visit.

Two skeptical workers listen as Jacob explains how he came to tend to the animals in Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth in the 1930s. And — here we go again — he whooshes back in time for some overripe nostalgia.

Jacob’s younger self (Grant Gustin) hops the train, joins the scrappy “kinkers” and first encounters Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), a Liberty Horse rider who then sings the show’s best number, “Easy,” while an aerialist representing her injured steed (Antoine Boissereau) twirls sublimely above her head. 

Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla and Grant Gustin star in “Water for Elephants” on Broadway. @murphymade

The song is a sumptuous marriage of music, movement and puppetry that suggests what “Water for Elephants” could have been, had it not taken so many conventional, bland paths.

Thankfully, it’s rescued from total banality by a group of wonderful acrobats, who double as carnies and animals, and have an irrepressible desire to entertain. 

Watching them artfully pitch their tent in director Jessica Stone’s production is a pleasure.

But, as conceived, it’s still not as clever or lush as similar displays in Nicholas Hytner’s revival of “Carousel,” or Diane Paulus’ three-ring “Pippin.” Takeshi Kata’s set is mostly spare scaffolding and boxes in front of cloud projections (by David Bengali).   

Acrobats and aerialists enliven the story of “Water for Elephants.” @murphymade

Jacob, of course, falls for Marlena. But she is already married to August (Paul Alexander Nolan), the ringmaster and owner, who cruelly abuses animals and occasionally his unhappy wife.

Nolan, fresh off playing a Broadway villain in “Parade,” is back as the bad guy. It’s such an odd trend, because the talented actor is a much better fit for brighter roles.  

Marlena and Jacob risk growing closer while the vet begins taming a new star attraction to keep Benzini Brothers afloat — a pouty elephant named Rosie who won’t respond to his commands.

I won’t reveal to quirky trick he uses to train her, but this was my first time hearing the word witaj spoken in a musical. 

The elephant puppet, bulky and cartoon-eyed, gets the job done, but she’s rather low-rent as far as Broadway creatures go. The designs in “The Lion King,” “Life of Pi,” “War Horse” and even “King Kong” blow these out of the, sorry, water.

The cast of “Water for Elephants.” @murphymade

Act Two is where the show really wobbles. Plenty happens, but the proceedings have the pacing of a pachyderm. 

After a misleadingly rousing dance sequence called “Zostan” (choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll) comes an awkward clown act that’s unfunny. And several circus folks sing a time-filler tune, with an air of “Annie,” called “Squeaky Wheel.”

As twangy and pleasant as PigPen’s score is, the music lacks the folkloric edge of their entrancing “Old Man and the Old Moon” and “The Mountain Song.”

Act 2 begins to sag, as too much focus goes to the wrong moments. @murphymade

“Water” has more exuberance than wit; more catchphrases than character.

While the second half lumbers along like a pre-flight Dumbo, the wrong scenes and songs are given too much breathing room and important events such as, you know, murders and catastrophic stampedes are raced through to curtain call.

Although “Water” is a love story, that becomes one of its less appealing aspects.

Gustin and McCalla are milquetoast throughout — nothing says the Great Depression like “Glee” — and have hardly any chemistry.

So, a solo of hers called “What Did I Do?” and their love duet that immediately follows feel longer than “Das Rheingold.”

By that point, nobody cares if Jacob and Marlena get together in the end or not. We just pray somebody will come onstage and do a backflip.

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