Theater Review: Broadway’s “Water for Elephants” – A Counterargument

By Bob Abelman 

Arts Fuse theater critic Christopher Caggiano, among others, found that the new Broadway musical Water for Elephants “has very little going for it.” Let’s agree to disagree.

Water for Elephants by Rick Elice (book) and PigPen Theatre Co. (music and lyrics). Directed by Jessica Stone. Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., New York.

From left, Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, and Grant Gustin in Water for Elephants. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Not long after its Broadway premiere this past March, Water for Elephants – a musical based on Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel of the same name, which was turned into a film in 2011 — received some strongly worded pans from the likes of The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post.

The Arts Fuse theater critic Christopher Caggiano was of a like mind, suggesting in his April 1 review that the show “has very little going for it.” He found that the music consisted of “fragmented snatches of melody, formless daubs of sound struggling to coalesce into a full Broadway score.” He noted that the lyrics were “banal” and “mis-rhymed,” and that the dialogue had “an artificial feel to it.”

Let’s agree to disagree, and not just because Water for Elephants recently earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical. And Best Book of a Musical, Best Scenic Design of a Musical, Best Costume Design of a Musical, Best Lighting Design of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, and Best Choreography. I found the work to be thoroughly charming, consistently engaging, and a rare and wonderful amalgamation of intelligence and imagination. And so, by the way, did The New York Times, who listed the show as a “must-see” Critic’s Pick.

So, what explains this sweeping disparity in critical review?

Inundation, for one. Those critics whose beat is Broadway were called upon to not only cover Water for Elephants but 19 other productions that celebrated their opening nights within a week or two of this show, including The Notebook, An Enemy of the People, The Who’s Tommy, The Outsiders, Lempicka, Suffs, Hell’s Kitchen, The Wiz (revival), and The Heart of Rock and Roll.

Also, Water for Elephants is a very different kind of show than these others. It takes place during The Great Depression: a young veterinary student named Jacob Jankowski (Grant Gustin), who just lost his family and his future, jumps onto a moving train that happens to be carrying the Benzini Brothers Circus en route to its next booking. There, he finds a new family and a new future among the circus journeymen, the circus’ star performer, Marlena (Isabelle McCalla) — much to the dismay of her husband, the cruel and mercurial August (Paul Alexander Nolan) — and the featured bull elephant, Rosie (puppeteers Caroline Kane, Paul Castree, Michael Mendez, Charles South, and Sean Stack). This musical is a memory play, as told from the perspective of an elderly Jacob (Gregg Edelman), where his adventure is a life lesson that invites us all to step into the unknown, take some risks, and choose the ride.

The show’s small, heartfelt story is built one song and one image at a time, its narrative supported by subtle acting performances, clever puppetry (designed by Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman, and Camille Labarre), circus artistry, stunning multi-part harmony, and a string-centric orchestra. Because it is a memory play, its creators are more concerned with evoking emotions of remembrance than grounding the show in reality. This intent can seem underwhelming, easily underappreciated by critics who were dealing at the time with more complex stories — including productions based on a classic drama by Henrik Ibsen, another based on the life of Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, and the louder, larger-than-life visions of jukebox musicals based on the works of The Who and Huey Lewis and the News.

The cast of Water for Elephants. Photo: Matthew Murphy

That said, the muted nature of this musical and its substantial employment of creative license should have come as no surprise to critics. Playwright Rick Elice also wrote the Tony-winning Peter and the Starcatcher and PigPen Theatre Co. — seven talented Carnegie Mellon School of Drama graduates who met as sophomores — also provided the score for the off-off-Broadway production of The Old Man and the Old Moon (Arts Fuse review). These are two hopelessly romantic tales that replace theatrical pyrotechnics with ingenious and infectious low-tech storytelling, and offer songs intended to reflect the emotional journeys of the characters rather than advance the narrative.

Collectively, this approach generates an enchanting bedtime story aesthetic that whispers to rather than yells at audiences and critics, and asks them to engage their own imaginations while watching. As does Water for Elephants.

The naysayers have written that the gravity-defying acrobatic feats that are scattered throughout the show — designed and staged by Shana Carroll, who is co-founder of the 7 Fingers acrobatic troupe — have little relation to the story and come off as distractions rather than enhancements. But NYT critic Jesse Greene suggests that, by watching them perform, we come to understand that risk and danger are everywhere in this story.

I agree, but it’s more than that. Empty space has been built into Takeshi Kata’s scenic design, made to be filled with David Bengali’s gorgeous sky vista projections, Bradley King’s dramatic lighting design, and acrobats performing dangerous, high-risk stunts but with the greatest of ease.  All this infuses the production with astounding beauty, grace, and the aforementioned bedtime story aesthetic.

These are not qualities one typically finds on the Broadway stage or in the musical theater handbook.  Which may be the best explanation for the differing of opinions among critics and the main reason my take is so resoundingly positive.

Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle. He covers the Providence, RI theater scene for The Boston Globe.


  1. Chris Caggiano on May 15, 2024 at 11:40 am

    Yet another illustration of the idea that informed, intelligent people can disagree on notions of artistic merit. As for me, I won’t be eager to sit through Water for Elephants again, nor will I be savoring the upcoming cast recording.

  2. Bob Abelman on May 15, 2024 at 2:56 pm

    Thanks, Bill Marx, for providing a forum for differing opinions.

  3. Jeremy Gerard on May 16, 2024 at 10:36 am

    I’m partisan (I love this show) and I’m grateful for this astute, considered view. Taking into account what a show *doesn’t* do to hock its goods is one mark of out-of-the-box criticism, and it is invaluable. Thanks!

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