7/8/2023 WATER FOR ELEPHANTS Alliance Theatre
RIDING THE TRAIN
Like a locomotive aimed straight at the audience, Water For Elephants is a musical that is part tragic love story, part circus memoir, part depression-era portrait-of-the-young-man, and all razzle-dazzle force-of-nature train ride I wish had not ended! And, unfortunately, it has ended (for now), though a Broadway run is not outside the tent looking in.
Based on the Novel by Sara Gruen (which was turned into an effecting 2011 movie produced by and starring Reese Witherspoon), I was totally unfamiliar with its premise, its story, and its characters. More close-to-opening reviews of the production took it to task for neglecting story elements for its acrobatically engaging spectacle.
But to me, that is a “blinded by the light” response of a writer who would rather judge than engage. I had no problem being swept up by the story, by the characters, by the ensemble and their connection. For me, the razzle-dazzle was icing on an already delicious construction.
To recap, a man has gone to the circus to escape his monotonous old-age-home existence and to relive the glories of his youth. It is his birthday, and he has been abandoned by his family and allowed to “escape” by his “keepers.” The circus folk quickly take to him because of his obvious familiarity with their world, and he is soon sharing his story.
Jump back more than 70 years to 1931. Jacob Jankowski has just lost his parents, his home, and his future. He jumps on a train to escape his grief and to find some
work that is simply not depression-era available. As luck would have it, the train belongs to the traveling Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
He quickly makes some friends, some enemies, and close acquaintance with menagerie dung. Just as quickly, he connects with the circus Trick Horse Rider, Marlena, thanks to his veterinary background and his obvious affection for animals. The owner of the circus, August. is a well of (hidden) evil but recognizes Jacob’s talents and his value. In spite of the fact of the palpable connection between Jacob and Marlena. Did I mention that Marlena is August’s wife? What can possibly go wrong?
Before long, Marlena’s prize beloved stallion must be put down and the circus is in need of a new “star attraction.” Enter Rosie, a lovely pachyderm, described as “50 years old” and “the dumbest animal ever born”. But elephants can live as long as 70 years, so 50 ain’t that old. And, as is soon revealed, Rosie ain’t “dumb” and the Polish-American Jacob is singularly qualified to break her stubborn streak.
But this is a love story and a musical. What can possibly happen to make us leave the theatre with a smile on our faces and a song in our hearts? Sure the Atlanta staging of the show has closed, but in the hopes of a future Broadway run, you’ll find no spoilers here.
One of the more effective changes made in the journey from book to movie to libretto was to beef up the role of “Old Jacob.” Hal Holbrook in the movie is essentially a cameo role in the beginning and the end. Here the charismatic Harry Groener (Broadway’s Crazy for You, Off-Broadway’s If Love Were All, TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) steps into the role and weaves in out of the story, sometimes even interacting with his younger self, often confusing the contemporary circus folk with their 1931 counterparts. It’s a brilliant choice that puts the play firmly in his head and memory – were these extraordinarily talented stage acrobats really at the level of a sleazy circus like the Benzini’s? I think not – I watched the movie AFTER seeing this show, and the movie acrobats were a pale imitation of the remarkable talents we see on stage here – they are obviously enhanced in Jacob’s mind’s eye.
Is the modern Horse tamer really a “dead ringer” for Marlena? For us, yes, as both roles are played by the talented Isabelle McCalla. In reality? Not so sure.
Yes, the elephant in the room here is August’s hidden evils – his cruelty to animals, wife, and staff, his greed, his murderous inclinations, his well- deserved fate. We see that Jacob and Marlena are perfect for each other. But I had a nagging thought that we’re seeing them through Old Jacob’s fuzzy- rose-tinted memory.
But this is a musical, so how are the songs? Yes, there are a few that could use some tweaking, but as a whole, the score is consistent and memorable. As usual with the Alliance, there is no song list included in the program (and I will now and forever HATE that choice), so I cannot cite any specific numbers. But I found especially moving Marlena’s lullaby to her dying horse (and the remarkable aerial display of the horse’s “spirit” that accompanies it), Jacob’s song about choosing “This Place” as where he wants his life to go, the climactic stampede which ties all the plot thread threads into a spectacularly vivid tapestry of projection, puppetry, choreography, acting, and music. And of course, the plea to “live the ride.” That the choices we make have little to no effect on the train trip fate and life have in store.
So kudos to librettist Rick Elice (Jersey Boys, Peter and the Star Catcher) and director Jessica Stone (Kimberly Akimbo), and Composers Pigpen Theatre Co. for a smart and memorable adaptation, that sent me first to the 2011 movie and soon to the original novel (already downloaded to my Kindle). Kudos to the cast, especially Mr. Groener, Ms. McCalla, Ryan Vasquez as Young Jacob, Bryan Fenkart as August and his (much kinder) modern counterpart Charlie, Stan Brown and Joe de Paul as Jacob’s friends Camel and Walter. And Kudos especially to puppet master Camille Labarre for creating a Rosie (and other menagerie denizens) that are a combination of character, design, and eccentricities. That circus choreographer Marco Ingaramo deserves praise for keeping the ensemble aloft and (I assume) safe is obvious. As does the remarkably athletic and talented Circus Ensemble.
So, are you a person who enjoys the ride that is your life, or are you one who fights fate and the inexorable pull of the locomotive getting you from day to day?
In either case, Water for Elephants makes the case that there is joy, fulfillment, and extraordinary appeal to just enjoying the ride. Wherever it takes you,
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #AllianceTheatre #WaterForElephants )