jakub | March 23, 2024

On the Red Carpet: How Water for Elephants Is the ‘Biggest, Smallest Musical’

Opening Night

On the Red Carpet: How Water for Elephants Is the ‘Biggest, Smallest Musical'

Go inside the opening night of the new Broadway musical, attended by stars such as Bernadette Peters, Christian Borle, and Andrew Rannells.

Isabelle McCalla and Grant Gustin
Michaelah Reynolds

Step right up! Broadway's newest act is Water for Elephants, the circus-set musical based on Sara Gruen‘s bestselling novel. The show officially opened March 21 at the Imperial and the company celebrated in big-top style. See what critics had to say here.

Coming to Main Stem from television roles in Glee and The Flash, Grant Gustin makes his Broadway debut in the new musical as Jacob Jankowski, a vet student who hops a circus train in 1931 and falls in love with the lifestyle…and the circus' leading lady Marlena, played by Isabelle McCalla

“This will be on a shortlist of days at the end of my life that are, you know, some of the most memorable, special moments. So hopefully, I can take in every aspect of it and just enjoy it,” Gustin told Playbill on the red carpet. 

The show is directed by Jessica Stone and features circus design by Shana Carroll of Vancouver's 7 Fingers Circus, bringing the awe-inspiring tricks of the circus rings to the proscenium stage of the Imperial. A horse act is done in aerial silks, a Chinese pole act is performed as the circus tent's center pole is raised, and acrobats tumble throughout. 

“It's the biggest, smallest musical I've ever been in, in a way,” says Paul Alexander Nolan, who plays Marlena's husband, the ringmaster August. “I say small in that we have very little set. It's really the company of artists and the puppetry and the circus that fill in this set. And so it does kind of feel like a downtown show brought to a big stage. So, we're giving people the pleasure of a big musical with the gratification of a story that's really about a very human thing.”

As Jacob searches for his place in the world, Marlena needs to escape hers. August is an abusive man—to the animals, to his wife, to anyone who disagrees with him. For McCalla, playing Marlena is as thrilling as doing tricks on the trapeze. “Marlena is a beacon for all women who know what it's like to have to silence themselves and silence their wants for the sake of others,” she says. “To play this woman who finds her voice and finds a strength to go after her own life every night is so cathartic. It's a dream and I love her so deeply.” 

Marlena does find her way, with the help of Jacob and the biggest star in the show, Rosie the Elephant.

The circus' menagerie of animals is brought to life through puppetry (designed by Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman, and Camille Labarre). But on the red carpet, Playbill asked the cast of Water for Elephants to give us some of their best circus animal impressions. See the video below.

The cast also includes Gregg Edelman (City of Angels) as Mr. Jankowski, Stan Brown, making his Broadway debut at age 61, as Camel, Joe De Paul (Cirque du Soleil's Dralion) as Walter, Sara Gettelfinger (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) as Barbara, and Wade McCollum (Wicked) as Wade.

The company is completed by Brandon Block, Antoine Boissereau, Rachael Boyd, Paul Castree, Ken Wulf Clark, Taylor Colleton, Gabriel Olivera de Paula Costa, Isabella Luisa Diaz, Samantha Gershman, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Nicolas Jelmoni, Caroline Kane, Harley Ross Beckwith McLeish, Michael Mendez, Samuel Renaud, Marissa Rosen, Alexandra Gaelle Royer, Asa Somers, Charles South, Sean Stack, Matthew Varvar, and Michelle West.

Click through the gallery below to see the red carpet arrivals of the company, including score writers PigPen Theatre Co., and guests like Bernadette Peters, Christian Borle, and Andrew Rannells and Katie Brayben (who were just announced to bring Tammy Faye to Broadway).


Photos: Water for Elephants Opens on Broadway

Jesse Robb co-choreographs the musical with Carroll. The creative team is filled out by scenic designer Takeshi Kata, costume designer David Israel Reynoso, lighting designer Bradley King, sound designer Walter Trarbach, projection designer David Bengali, hair and makeup designer Campbell Young Associates, music supervisor and arranger Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Benedict Braxton-Smith, and orchestrators Daryl Waters, Benedict Braxton-Smith, and August Eriksmoen.

Elizabeth Doran is music director, and Cha Ramos provide fight direction. Timothy R. Semon is the production stage manager. All but Trarbach and Doran are continuing with the production after working on the Atlanta world premiere.

Peter Schneider, Jennifer Costello, Grove Entertainment, Frank Marshall, Isaac Robert Hurwitz, and Seth A. Goldstein are producing the Broadway debut.

Visit WaterForElephantsTheMusical.com

Below, see the Water for Elephants cast take their opening night bows.

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