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“Water for Elephants” reviewed

Water for Elephants will delight on the basis of spectacle alone — and that’s okay. For all the condescension the word receives, it isn’t intrinsically a lesser aspect of the art form; it’s just caught in a tricky polycule with both wonder and cynicism. Once we’ve time-warped back to the Great Depression, the show itself acknowledges as much. Here, young Jacob (Grant Gustin), grieving the death of his parents in a car crash, abandons his vet-school studies and hops a train. Soon enough he’s adopted by its inhabitants, the “kinkers” and “rousts” of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth (Elice and Sara Gruen, author of the 2006 novel on which the show is based, love their circus jargon). The ringmaster, August (Paul Alexander Nolan, doing handsome sociopath), agrees to give Jacob a trial as a vet, and the show’s star performer, Marlena (a glowing Isabelle McCalla), takes a shine to him when he shows tenderness toward her beloved, injured stallion. Under their wing, Jacob receives his education: They are the circus’s symbolic poles — August, who has a cruelly abusive streak, especially after too much Champagne, is all calculated charm and deception (“You see nothing round here’s / Ever quite what it appears,” he sings to the greenhorn. “If it was, then I wouldn’t have a business”). Marlena is Keatsian truth and beauty. “Where is the lie / When they’re flying overhead?” Jacob retorts to August. “When they’re dancing on a thread? / When she’s riding?”

Of course Marlena and August are married, and of course Jacob and Marlena are as immediately and obtrusively gaga over each other as if their last names were Montague and Capulet. Angst, romance, and violence will ensue, and that’s all fine, but what’s really exciting are the stunts along the way. The most compelling aspect of the show’s menagerie of puppets, designed by Ray Wetmore and JR Goodman with Camille Labarre, is the way in which their bodies are often unfinished, suggested, tapering into nothing specifically so that they can share character life with a separate performer. As Marlena comforts her suffering stallion (“Easy Now”), the horse’s silver-white head and neck lie in her lap, a partial body into which she’s infusing breath — but linked to the puppet, sometimes physically and sometimes through more ephemeral ties, is the acrobat Antoine Boissereau, who performs a stunning pair of silks routines as an embodiment of the stallion’s spirit. Playing an orangutan named Agnes, Alexandra Gaelle Royer becomes a human-puppet hybrid, the scrappy orange shag of her costume tying her to the rest of the show’s animals as she dangles effortlessly from various bits of scaffolding. Swinging alongside Royer outside of puppet land, the gymnasts Rachael Boyd and Isabella Luisa Diaz are launched through the air, caught, twirled, flipped, and stacked on top of teetering human towers. Boyd’s bio describes her as a “pocket-sized powerhouse,” and indeed, the production’s circus corps are every one of them dynamos.

While Marlena, August, and the Jacobs drive the plot, it’s this ensemble of extraordinary physical performers who are the real stars of Water for Elephants. I found myself missing them when they were gone, getting impatient for their next display of Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll’s vigorous choreography (Carroll is also credited with circus design). Their work, though, is really thrilling only when it’s really needful: At two hours and forty minutes, the production, especially in the second act, starts to show its padding. A song called “Zostán” (Jacob is teaching everyone a little Polish) feels like a low-stakes excuse for playtime, and another called “Squeaky Wheel” — a warning to Jacob from a trio of circus elders — is both a bit musty in form and a trifle lyrically confused. “Don’t be the squeaky wheel,” the old hands Barbara (Sara Gettelfinger), Camel (Stan Brown), and Walter (Joe De Paul) sing to Jacob, as a caution against drawing too much attention to himself with the boss’s wife. I … do not think that phrase means what they think it means.

Though the show puts its weight in the places that make narrative sense, they aren’t always the most rewarding ones. We never really get to see much of Wetmore, Goodman, and Lebarre’s zoo of animal creations. Instead, we spend the bulk of our time with the creature of the title, an elephant named Rosie (team-puppeted by Caroline Kane, Paul Castree, Michael Mendez, Charles South, and Sean Stack). I could never quite decide whether Rosie — who gets a possibly unhelpful amount of build-up before her eventual appearance — was lovely or slightly underwhelming, which probably means the answer is both. Though Kane has some fun moments where she enacts the pachyderm by puppeting individual body parts (the disconnected trunk is particularly expressive), Rosie as a whole doesn’t quite pack the punch that she should. She’s sweet, but she doesn’t take the breath away. Although the same might be said of certain broader stretches of Water for Elephants, the production also contains real flashes of astonishment and grace. Clear away the schmaltz, and there are bodies in space stretching and twisting toward something strange and sublime, bodies that pulse with e. e. cummings’s fervent cry: “Damn everything but the circus!”