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Review: Grant Gustin and Isabelle McCalla star in ‘Water for Elephants’ on Broadway

Actors Grant Gustin and Isabelle McCalla star in the new musical “Water for Elephants,” which premiered  at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway.

Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, and Grant Gustin
Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, and Grant Gustin. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, and Grant Gustin. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Actors Grant Gustin and Isabelle McCalla star in the new musical “Water for Elephants,” which premiered at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway.

Gustin and McCalla portray Jacob Jankowski and Marlena Rackinger respectively, and they are able to transport their audience to the circus.

It is based on the best-selling romance novel by Sara Gruen with music and lyrics by PigPen Theatre Company and a book by Rick Elice. This production was directed by Jessica Stone, who soared in bringing the animals to life via puppetry.

Synopsis: The musical is told from the perspective of Mr. Jankowski, who is living at an assisted living home, as he reflects to a time where he met the people behind the Benzini Brothers Circus (that would subsequently be known as the Ringling Brothers).

August, invites Jankowski to join the circus when he found out that he is a vet (for animals). August buys an elephant named Rosie, and he makes his wife Marlena and Jacob train her. The more time Jacob and Marlena spend together trying to train Rosie, the more they find themselves developing feelings for each other.

Grant Gustin who is known from “The Flash” and “Glee” makes his Broadway debut in the leading role of Jacob, with four-time Tony nominated-actor Gregg Edelman playing the aging version of Mr. Jankowski, who narrates this unflinching and yet enthralling story.

Paul Alexander Nolan is memorable as the nefarious ringmaster August Rackinger as he plays a character that the audience will certainly love to hate.

Sara Gettelfinger is able to dazzle as Barbara, while Wade McCollum wrestles his emotions and questions his morality as Wade (all while his character is manipulated by August). Joe De Paul is able to provide comic relief as Walter.

The production has a stirring and noteworthy musical score that went well with the acrobatic numbers and the puppet animals.

Social influencer and model Rudy Bundini remarked, “The new musical ‘Water for Elephants’ was an enchanting experience from start to finish. From the moment the curtain rose, I was transported to a world of incredible performances, emotive acting and storytelling.”

“The intricate set design and stunning costumes added depth and authenticity to the production,” Bundini added.

The Verdict

Overall, “Water for Elephants” is engaging, poignant, heartwarming, and thoroughly entertaining. This is a show that is ideal for the entire family.

Grant Gustin excelled in a role that was physically and mentally challenging, and he layered his emotions well; moreover, he had solid chemistry with Isabelle McCalla, who was delightful as Marlena, and she nailed the musical numbers “Easy” and “Wild.”

McCalla allows her crystalline vocals to shine as she showcases her dynamic range. The same holds true with Gustin’s controlled and resonant voice. The entire ensemble cast and orchestra brings something to the table.

Having said that, this show was not perfect. At times, there was so much taking place on stage (from an acrobatic and puppet standpoint) that it took away from the individual performances, which subsequently made the plot somewhat hard to follow.

Also, it lacked the rawness and authenticity of Sara Gruen’s book (to the point where some of the characters could have been developed more).

Regardless, it is quite a spectacle and still worth more than just a passing glance, especially since it is feel-good escapism. This Broadway production of “Water for Elephants” garners four out of five stars. Well done.

To learn more about “Water for Elephants” on Broadway, check out its official website.

Markos Papadatos
Written By

Markos Papadatos is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for Music News. Papadatos is a Greek-American journalist and educator that has authored over 21,000 original articles over the past 18 years. He has interviewed some of the biggest names in music, entertainment, lifestyle, magic, and sports. He is a 16-time "Best of Long Island" winner, where for three consecutive years (2020, 2021, and 2022), he was honored as the "Best Long Island Personality" in Arts & Entertainment, an honor that has gone to Billy Joel six times.

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