Alliance Theatre’s co-artistic directors Christopher Moses and Tinashe Kajese-Bolden call “Water for Elephants,” currently running through July 9, “the most ambitious play the Alliance Theatre has ever produced.” As it turns out, this is no exaggeration.
Based on the novel by Sara Gruen, with a book by Rick Elice, music and lyrics by Pigpen Theatre Co, this huge production is directed by Broadway’s Jessica Stone. There was a film (non musical) in 2011 with Robert Pattison and Reese Witherspoon.
It is 1931, the Great Depression has begun. A 23-year-old young man named Jacob Jankowski (Ryan Vasquez), having just learned his parents have been killed in a car accident, fails to take his college finals that would have made him a doctor of veterinary medicine. He further finds out his family home has been lost by foreclosure; in loneliness and desperation, he jumps onto a passing train.
He finds himself in the heart of a traveling circus: the Benzini Bros Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Thanks to his veterinary skills he has a new job, a new home, and new family. When ringmaster August ((Bryan Fenkart) brings Rosie the elephant on as the new star attraction, Jacob and August’s wife Marlena (Isabelle McCalla) join forces to train her. As Jacob and Marlena’s shared compassion develops into love, August’s already apparent cruel streak increases, threatening to derail Jacob’s life yet again.
It’s difficult to properly convey the dazzlement that “Water for Elephants” offers. There’s a touch of “The Lion King” and a larger touch of Cirque du Soleil. I realize this may sound hyperbolic, but the Alliance has searched far and wide to gather a team of about 25 acrobats, puppeteers, musicians, and actors. The opening night audience was quite stunned; when the lights came up for intermission, people looked at one another with wonderment.
No other theatre in Atlanta could have mounted this production; for one thing, nobody else has the fly space (the “flies” is the space above the stage) the Coca-Cola Stage has.
Daniel Weschler, one of the Pigpen songwriters, comments that “the seamlessness with which we move between spectacle and grounded storytelling will be something the audience hasn’t experienced before.” The play may not win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, but I think Mr. Weschler is right.
I cannot mention the names of songs because the program does not list them.
I can, however, mention some more creative contributors: music supervision and arrangements, Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Benedict Braxton-Smith; circus design, Shana Carroll; choreography, Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll; scenic design, Takeshi Kata; lighting design, Bradley King; sound design, Jessica Paz; music direction, Matt Hinkley.
The cast is large and the credits they boast are many, varied, and impressive. I can only mention a few (if you go, they’re all in the program, also on the Alliance web page): Harry Groener plays the senior Jacob Jankowski; Brandon Block, Antoine Boissereau, Stan Brown, Gabrielle Elisabeth, Sara Gettelfinger, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Caroline Kane, Michael Mendez, and Wade McCollum.
Director Jessica Stone has done a wondrous job of “putting it together, bit by bit,” as the Sondheim song goes. She just directed the Tony-winning “Kimberly Akimbo.”
One could say that “Water for Elephants” is about finding what it means to belong. Will it make the jump to Broadway? I’d say very likely. I would, however, knock off about ten minutes of Act II.
“Elephants” is spectacular and one-of-a-kind. I would definitely not miss it.
For tickets and more information, visit alliancetheatre.org.