‘Water for Elephants’ Review: Broadway Musical and Circus Merge for Spellbinding Entertainment

Ever feel like running away from home to join a musical? Then “Water for Elephants” would be the show of choice that offers escapism, enchantment and heart — and thrills, too.

Based on Sara Green’s 2006 bestseller, the show premiered last year at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and elevates the musical to new and literal heights with its seamless integration of theatrical and cirque artistry.

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It’s also the second new musical to open on Broadway in a week (following “The Notebook”) told in flashback from the perspective of a nursing home resident reconnecting with his younger self. But here the tale being told is not wistful but dynamic, its nostalgia sharpened with hard-knock realities, and its sentimentality offset with humor, snap and darkness.

It also transcends the literalness of the 2011 film (which starred Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz), making it a unique and imaginative creation of the stage and live performance.

The show is propelled by a fast-moving locomotive of a script by Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys,” “Peter and the Starcatcher”) and the characters on board are on the ride of the lives. For most, it’s about survival. Set during the Depression, the story follows distraught young man Jacob Jankowski (Grant Gustin, compelling) as he flees from a family trauma, all told in flashbacks by his older self (Gregg Edelman).

After hitching a ride on what turns out to be a circus train, Jacob’s one-day stay with the hard-scrabble touring company is extended after ringmaster/owner Augustus (Paul Alexander Nolan) sees this almost-veterinarian — Jacob dropped out just before graduating Cornell — as an easy asset for the troupe’s sad menagerie. (The song “The Lion Has No Teeth” says it all.)

Through Jacob we enter a sawdust subculture and with him discover the hierarchy, attitude and lingo of circus life where performer are “kinkers,” customers are “rubes” and “red-lighting” is being thrown from a moving train.

With economy and wit, we learn much about the characters with whom Jacob soon bonds: elderly odd-jobber Camel (Stan Brown, authentic), no-nonsense clown Walter (Joe De Paul, snarlingly hysterical), seen-it-all showgirl Barbara (Sara Gettelfinger, terrific) and especially equestrian Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), the recipient of her husband August’s devotion — and his abuse. Ever looming is the troupe’s threatening foreman (Wade McCollum).

Fortunes for the debt-ridden circus reverse when Rosie, a 53-year-old elephant, is brought into the company. But the pachyderm resists training until Jacob finds just the right words and, with Marlena, makes the intuitive animal into the star attraction.

The shared compassion and attraction of the two trainers becomes noticeable by the troupe — including the ruthless, sadistic and mercurial Augustus. It’s not long before something wicked this way comes.

The cast is big-top level. Edelman’s low-key ease and self-aware humor makes this nursing home escapee a beguiling yet clear-eyed guide to the long-ago past and to this fascinating circus caravan.

Gustin as young Jacob shares that likability — and vulnerability — as a man feeling lost and alone until he discovers his true calling, chosen family and love. McCalla plays Marlena not as a victim but as an ever-resilient wife walking the tightrope of fidelity, fear and desperation. Nolan is mesmerizing as Augustus, a master impresario and sociopath of both charm and menace.

Jessica Stone, who staged the modestly-scaled “Kimberly Akimbo,” and her creative team — especially circus designer Shana Carroll, who co-choreographs with Jesse Robb — here tackle a big-canvas production, bringing it all under one spectacular tent without forgetting its human — and animal — hearts.

The production’s masterful illusionists include set designer Takeshi Kata, lighting designer Bradley King and Walter Trarbach, who created a soundscape. For the task of creating, yes, the elephant in the room — as well as the lions, orangutans and other creatures large and small — puppet designers Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman and Camille LaBarre work wonders, capturing each animal’s essence, sometimes with detailed designs but also with the simplest suggestion, especially for Rosie who becomes, via puppeteer Caroline Kane, a fully realized character — and star of this show, too.

The septet of the production’s aerialists and acrobats come from the Montreal-based 7 Fingers company, which made the 2013 revival of “Pippin” so beguiling. Their feats are not just for the sake of a gasp — shout-out here to the astonishing Keaton Hentoff-Killian —  but are metaphorically connected to the story on stage. For instance, as Marlena gently sings “Easy” to calm her injured stallion, the poignancy is echoed in an exquisite Spanish Web performance on dangling ribbons of glistening white fabric by Antoine Boissereau.

The score by the musical collective PigPen Theatre Co. captures the tuneful Americana mood of the era, and mixes it up with songs ranging from swing to folk. Especially fine is the infectious “The Road Don’t Make You Young,” the romantic ballad “Wild” and “Zostan,” the rollicking celebration of Polish commands.

For followers of the book and film, the climactic moment on stage remains equally thrilling — and the most creative stampede since the wildebeest run in “The Lion King” (whose co-producer Peter Schneider is also top-lined here).

This underdog circus troupe may promote its entertainment as “Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth,” but for this rube’s nickels, “Water for Elephants” could be the greatest show on Broadway.

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