In Broadway’s ‘Water for Elephants,’ circus parts are good, songs are meh

NEW YORK — The new Broadway musical “Water for Elephants” looks patched together. In a good way.

After all, the Benzini Brothers’ Depression-era traveling circus, where the show is set, is no tiptop big top. The animals are malnourished, and some might be a little mangy. The performers form a tightknit skilled ensemble, but a few carry a lot of miles and seem a little weary. Both the tent and the traveling quarters are on the ragtag side. It’s only fitting, then, that the puppets representing the menagerie appear stitched from well-worn pieces, the company is made of disparate but complementary moving parts, and simple scaffolds bring to life an environment far from Ringling razzmatazz.

End of carousel

Not everything works in Jessica Stone’s production — there’s a reason the words “dream sequence” tend to set off alarm bells — but at least it summons a coherent theatrical universe. And more often than not, the show (whose world premiere was this past June in Atlanta) captures the unabashed mix of romance and pathos that made its source material, a bestseller by Sara Gruen, so wildly popular.

Like the novel, Rick Elice’s book toggles between the present of the elderly Jacob Jankowski (Gregg Edelman) and 1931, the fateful year he joined the circus. Having dropped out of veterinary school just before his final exams, the young Jacob (an appealing Grant Gustin, who played the title character on the CW series “The Flash”) finds a job, and a refuge from a life in flux, with the Benzini Brothers.

The outfit’s owner and ringmaster, August (Paul Alexander Nolan), is a sleek charmer, but the character was played by Christoph Waltz in the movie adaptation from 2011, so you know he has a dark side. To drive the point home, every time August opens his mouth to sing, the score, by the seven-men group PigPen Theatre Co., suddenly sounds like sub-Kander and Ebb, those masters of ominous charm.

On the receiving end of August’s brutality are, well, everybody and everything at the circus, but mainly his wife, Marlena (a silver-voiced Isabelle McCalla, confirming the promise she showed in “The Prom”), and the crowd-drawing elephant, Rosie.

Like all the musical’s beasties, Rosie is a puppet, and the production’s use of that artistic device is deftly integrated. This does mean that “Water for Elephants” will draw comparisons to “The Lion King” or even the undervalued “Life of Pi,” but the new show uses puppets a little differently. Because the circus is both a setting and a storytelling tool here, the border between spectacle and life is porous, and it makes narrative sense for humans and animals to mesh into one another. The most striking example is the horse Silver Star, brought to life by the acrobat Antoine Boissereau. The scene in which Boissereau performs an aerial number while Marlena sings the aching ballad “Easy,” cradling a puppet horse’s head, might as well be sponsored by Kleenex.

Similarly, acrobatics fill the Benzini acts, but the cast’s precision and physicality also buoy seemingly mundane tasks such as the hammering of stakes to pull up the tent: This is a life of ever-present risk, necessitating ever-present athleticism. Those elements are fluidly woven into the show by Shana Carroll, a founder and artistic director of the Montreal collective the 7 Fingers who is credited with circus design, and choreographed with Jesse Robb. (Carroll’s 7 Fingers colleague Gypsy Snider worked on Diane Paulus’s circus-inflected revival of “Pippin” a decade ago.)

It is telling that it has taken me so long to circle back to the music, because it is not what makes the strongest impression. At their best, the numbers sound like the 1930s filtered through the folk rock of the late 1960s and early ’70s: “Wild,” a duet between Jacob and Marlena, emulates early Joni Mitchell romanticism, while a few songs’ melodic melancholia and period atmosphere recall Randy Newman’s explorations of Americana. The lyrics never come remotely close to Newman’s sharp angles, though, and too often succumb to bland earnestness. If only the score had been willing to be as untethered from gravity as the rest of the show.

Water for Elephants, ongoing at the Imperial Theatre in New York. 2 hours, 40 minutes. waterforelephantsthemusical.com.

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