Several years ago, a couple of creative theater folks were having a conversation about adapting Sara Gruen’s 2006 best-seller “Water for Elephants” into a Broadway musical. It would be an intriguing challenge to bring to life on the stage, they agreed. Nearly all the book’s action takes place either aboard a moving circus train or under a big top tent. There are circus performers, dozens of animals, and at one point a panicked stampede.
There was a pause, which producer Jennifer Costello filled. “Then there’s the elephant.”
That would be Rosie, the brainy, big-hearted pachyderm.
“I think readers fell in love with the elephant like I did, even though I made her up,” says Sara Gruen.
“Water for Elephants,” which closes the Alliance Theatre’s 54th season, is another Alliance swing for the fences, a world premiere of a full-on musical with major outside financial backing and brains that could be headed for Broadway if things go well (something no one with the show wants to talk about for fear of jinxing it).
“This was a dream I didn’t know I had,” says Gruen, who will be at the Alliance for the opening. She has been keeping abreast of the show’s development as it has been assembled over eight years (with a long pandemic pause) and attended recent rehearsals that were held in New York for logistical reasons before the show could set up at the Alliance.
“They have made it into this new thing,” she says. “It is a very different animal but with the spirit intact. I kept saying to myself I should know this; I wrote it.”
The story is told through the memories of Jacob Jankowski (Harry Groener), a 90-year-old looking back on his life and longing for one last adventure. Despondent and alone during the worst days of the Great Depression, young Jacob (Ryan Vazquez) hops a random train and discovers himself plopped into the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Which is actually several degrees short of spectacular.
Welcomed, grudgingly, into this tight-knit world with its many arcane rules and rituals, he falls in love with the show’s most beautiful performer, Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), which puts him dangerously at odds with her jealous, abusive husband August (Bryan Fenkart).
The show’s book is by Tony Award nominee Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”), with music and lyrics by PigPen Theatre Co. (“The Tale of Despereaux”). Jessica Stone, a Tony nominee for “Kimberly Akimbo,” directs.
Stone, who was part of that early conversation about how to stage the book, explains that having the play be told through the lens of a very old man is one of the keys.
“It is a memory play,” she says. “When you think about memory, what memories mean the most to you and why, what are the most vibrant? What stands out and what is unreliable? That becomes an interesting way to think about the story visually.”
There are 28 performers in the cast, eight of whom are actual circus performers. Many of the actors double as animals, using costumes and puppeteering to evoke a full circus. Producer Peter Schneider was one of the forces behind bringing “The Lion King” to Broadway, which may offer some hints as to how the performers bring the puppet animals to life.
“There’s very little automation in the show,” says Stone. “Our company members help change locations, our company members create our animals and raise a tent and create a train. The whole idea is to have it be painterly: analog, not digital.”
Rosie is not realized in any single form, but in several ways; she may be merely suggested sometimes, very large and realistic at other times, looming larger or smaller depending on Jacob’s memory.
“We play around with scale and shadow and memory,” Stone says. “We want to leave it to audiences to discover. Sometimes Rosie requires four puppeteers, sometimes one, sometimes none.”
But no matter which Rosie is onstage, says Stone, “she represents the central question of the book, which is: ‘Who are you when you lose everything? It’s the Depression and people are boiling shoe leather to eat. The stakes could not be higher. Are you the kind person who would murder your nemesis to have a chance, or are you the kind of person who would save an elephant?
“To me she represents decency and shows us the bonds and the skills of our central characters, who have the ability to calm beasts.”
“Water for Elephants,” which is recommended for ages 11 and older, may turn out to be one of the musicals that opens at the Alliance and moves on to Broadway (“The Color Purple,” “Sister Act”) or may not be. Stone says that can’t be her focus now.
“I’ve spent the last 10 years working regionally. So the thing I care most about is that we create something beautiful for an audience in Atlanta, right here, right now.”
“Water for Elephants”
June 7-July 9. $78-$25. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4600, alliancetheatre.org.