Water for Elephants, the world premiere musical running June 7 to July 9 at Alliance Theatre, is a circus-set spectacle involving puppetry, acrobatic stunts and an animal stampede onstage. Yet what drew some of the cast and creators to the story were the central themes of love and loss.

Jessica Stone, the musical’s director, who is also currently nominated for a Tony Award for directing Broadway’s Kimberly Akimbo, joined the project at its inception in 2018. 

“I think it’s a really beautiful story,” Stone said of the adaptation of author Sara Gruen’s 2006 hit novel. “It’s almost a fable, this sort of memory play and this idea that you can take stock of a life lived.”

Actor Isabelle McCalla, who plays Marlena in the show, said in a conference call that Stone informed the entire cast on the first day of the initial workshop that the show would focus on emotion as much as dazzling sights.

“Jess, you said to us that even though our show takes place in a circus, it’s actually about what happens to people who lose everything,” McCalla said to Stone. “Who do you become? Who do you turn to? Because it’s set in the Depression era, I think it’s a very beautiful, complex story of these lost souls. They run away to join the circus.”

 McCalla said that Stone’s involvement in the project is what drew her to it. She was a fan

Isabella McCalla

of the original Off-Broadway production of Kimberly Akimbo. When her manager informed her that Stone would be directing the workshop, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I was like, ‘Absolutely yes. I’ll do anything, too,’” McCalla said. “I want to be in the room with this mind. I didn’t know her at all, except I watched a show that I loved dearly.”

Since then, McCalla said that she has embraced the material.

“I fell in love with the music; I fell in love with the story; I fell in love with Marlena,” she said. “I’ve read the book twice now, so I feel more enmeshed in the world. It’s a show that has everything: spectacle, deep heart and nuance.” 

The story of Water for Elephants involves the memories of Jacob Jankowski (Ryan Vasquez). When the character was younger, he was a veterinary student who hops upon a circus train after the death of his family during the Depression and meets Marlena (McCalla), an equestrian and trapeze artist who also cares for the circus animals. Marlena’s animal trainer husband August (Bryan Fenkart) is physically abusive to his wife and the animals, and she and Jacob fall in love while seeking a life free of danger.

To bring the show to life, Stone worked with “a Prussian army of collaborators,” she said in praise of the massive cast and crew.

“We talk a lot about what’s amazing about the culture of the circus — you’re really dependent upon one another to do a trick safely,” Stone said. “And so, there is that spirit in the show that we really all have to lean on one another and are really dependent upon one another. It’s very much a community vibe.”

The stagecraft involved in the production is impressionistic, Stone said, because it is told through memory by Jacob as an older man. Unlike other musicals that use circus stunts and animal puppets, like the recent Pippin revival, The Lion King and Life of Pi, those elements of spectacle arrive onstage to punctuate the most vibrant of the character’s memories.

“He’s looking back on this vibrant chapter with memories that are never really dependable,” she explained. “There is a sliver that’s incredibly accurate and vibrant. The rest of it is blurry or just wrong. We choose what we remember, what we highlight and what we take with us. So, that lens is how our beautiful design team and choreographers are considering it. You may not see a fully realized bear because that wasn’t the most vibrant part of that memory. You may just see a fragment.”

One moment where circus stunts are used is when Jacob meets Marlena for the first time. McCalla learned trapeze arts for the show and said that working with circus artists was awe-inspiring.

“Luckily I’ve been a dancer, and my training helped,” she said. “I got a little overeager,

Ryan Vasquez plays the role of Jacob Jankowski in “Water for Elephants.”

definitely. I’m also a perfectionist. I was wrestling with my own perfectionist tendencies in the trapeze, but it was very fun. My goal is to not look like I’m new at it.”

Stone was impressed by McCalla’s work.

“She took to it like a duck to water!” she said. “I couldn’t believe it, as with everything with her. It was literally like she’d been doing it her whole life.”

McCalla said Water for Elephants is filled with show-stopping musical moments, though her favorite number comes in Act Two, when Marlena’s inner life is explored in song.

“It’s very different from a lot of the other songs in the show because it’s very stream-of-consciousness,” she said. “It unravels itself. It’s a slight story song. It’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever gotten the chance to sing. I don’t have to do much except follow the story of it and say the words, and it’s wildly impactful.”

Stone said it is one of her favorite moments in the show as well.

“The thing about Izzie is that she drops into that moment so effortlessly,” Stone said. “It just comes pouring out of her. She is just fully in every single moment. She has tremendous emotional facility and access.”

Stone said she hopes Water for Elephants has a terrific Atlanta run because the artistry has been inspiring. “I really believe in the spirit of the show,” she said. “I believe that, when you’re watching it, being in touch with all that skill, talent and heart is meaningful. I believe deeply in the importance of regional theater and reaching new audiences and young audiences.”

The possibility of a future run, perhaps on Broadway, encourages Stone.

“If we can do our job here well, and we speak to audiences here, and we push the envelope a teeny bit in a perspective on life, we’ve done a beautiful job,” the director said. “If we can do that more with this story and take that to other theaters and audiences, I would love it.”


Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His novel Impacted was published by The Story Plant in 2021.

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