You may have come across the story “Water for Elephants” at some point in time — whether in the novel written by Sara Gruen or in the film directed by Francis Lawrence, but to see it all unfold on stage in a live-action musical is quite incomparable to any other medium in which it exists.

From June 7 to July 9, 2023, “Water for Elephants” will be taking over the Coca-Cola stage at Alliance Theatre, closing out their 54th season. The production, transcribed to its theatrical form by three-time Tony Award nominee Rick Elice and directed by Jessica Stone, intertwines drama, romance, deception and magic. Featuring real acrobatic artists and original music by PigPen Theatre Co., “Water for Elephants” is sure to leave a lasting impression on all generations.

The cast of the Alliance Theatre’s world premiere musical, “Water for Elephants.”  Photo by Matthew Murphy. 

Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student who has just lost both of his parents, jumps onto a moving train and doesn’t care where it’s going. Set in the midst of the Depression era, we soon meet his new traveling circus family. Present-day Jankowski, now stuck in a nursing home, narrates us through his flashbacks of life on the road and depicts their hardships, the love he once had for the animals he worked with, and Marlena, the ring-leader’s wife. (What could go wrong?)

On average, Alliance Theatre produces one Broadway-hopeful production per season.  Recent productions that started at the Alliance and continued to Broadway include “The Prom,” which later became a Netflix film, “Tuck Everlasting,” “Bring It On: The Musical” (a Lin Manuel-Miranda musical before “Hamilton”), “Come Fly Away,” “Sister Act: The Musical,” and The “Color Purple.” 

For those unfamiliar with the stream-lined process of getting a production from an Atlanta theatre to a large-scale Broadway run, Seth Goldstein, a producer from “Water for Elephants” got into the nitty-gritty:

“The goal is to open on Broadway when we get a commitment from a Broadway theater. We are set up like almost any other private equity investment. We create a company for every show that we do. You might be surprised to know that Broadway musicals are the highest-grossing entertainment success. Of course, not all are successful. We create a great deal of licensing revenue. [Once it has opened] we try to franchise it around the world. It takes a village”, Goldstein explained. “Lest you think I’m only in it for the money,” he joked, “you wouldn’t believe the joy you feel when your show ends up on Broadway.”

These productions hoping to move to Broadway usually have producers involved who can enhance Alliance Theatre’s production budgets, sometimes allowing for bigger casts or larger sets. If a show does move on to Broadway or touring, they also receive royalties.  

Kathleen Covington, director of communications and marketing for Alliance Theatre, explained, “It’s difficult and expensive to open a show on Broadway, so even when a show opens at the Alliance and is very successful, the jump to Broadway is not guaranteed.”

Isabelle McCalla, Ryan Vasquez, and Harry Groener in the Alliance Theatre’s world premiere musical, “Water for Elephants.”  Photo by Matthew Murphy.  

In an early preview of the production, Glenn Weiss, president of the Northern Trust Corp., stated, “Cities that are thriving and doing well, they all have great arts communities. Alliance Theatre is part of that here in Atlanta. We are super excited about “Water for Elephants.”

The cast of “Water for Elephants” includes Stan Brownas Camel, Joe De Paulas Walter, Bryan Fenkart (Waitress) as August, Sara Gettelfinger (A Free Man of Color, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) as Barbara, Tony Award nominee Harry Groener (Crazy for You, Spamalot) as Mr. Jankowski, IsabelleMcCalla(The Prom, Aladdin) as Marlena, Wade McCollum (Wicked, My Fair Lady) as Wade, and RyanVasquez (Hamilton, The Wrong Man) as Jacob.

The ensemble includes Brandon Block, Antoine Boissereau, Paul Castree, Taylor Colleton, Isabella LuisaDiaz, Gabrielle Elisabeth, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Nicolas Jelmoni, Caroline Kane, Joel Malkoff, Michael Mendez, Jo’Nathan Michael, Gabriel Olivera De Paula Costa, Samuel Renaud, Marissa Rosen, Alexandra Gaelle Royer, Sean Stack, Matthew Varvar, and Michelle West.

The production features circus design by Shana Carroll (Cirque du Soleil Paramour), choreography by Jesse Robb (Miss Saigon) and Shana Carroll, scenic design by Takeshi Kata (Clyde’s), costume design by David Israel Reynoso (Sleep No More), lighting design by Tony Award winner BradleyKing (Flying Over Sunset, Hadestown, Fat Ham), sound design by Tony Award winner Jessica Paz (A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical, Hadestown), projections by David Bengali (1776, Beetlejuice), puppetry design by Camille Labarre (Into the Woods), rigging design byDanny Zen, music supervision and arrangements by Mary-Mitchell Campbell (Some Like It Hot, Moulin Rouge! The Musical, The Prom) andBenedict Braxton-Smith (Kristin Chenoweth: For the Girls), music direction by Matt Hinkley (Bandstand), orchestrations by Daryl Waters (Memphis), associate direction byRyan Emmons (Kimberly Akimbo), production stage management by Timothy R. Semon (Company) and casting in association with Tara Rubin Casting.

Kathleen Covington shared her praises of the production by adding, “Audience response has been great.  We hope the title recognition for this show, fantastic music, and unique staging bring in new audiences to the Alliance who will tell their friends and come again.”

The Alliance Theatre team is more than ready to send “Water for Elephants” flying. Catch it in Atlanta while you can. Tickets are available for purchase here. Educators are eligible for free tickets.

Maria Saporta contributed to this story.

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