Jessica Stone, in Broadway and circus enjoys a Tony nod

May 29, 2024 4:00 pm

[ Source : AP News ]

You don’t initially see a full elephant in the Broadway musical “Water for Elephants.” It’s more like a tease. First come a pair of enormous ears. Then a trunk. And then the legs.

The execution is by director Jessica Stone, who wanted to make it extra special for the audience when they finally get to see the big reveal at the end of Act 1. She thought it had to be awe-inspiring, tender and the spirit of an elephant.

“People were talking about how moved they were when they finally were seeing her in full and I was like, ‘OK, I think it’s going to be OK,’” Stone says.

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It’s been more than OK for Stone, whose show earned seven Tony Award nominations, including one for Best New Musical and one for her heroic efforts to seamlessly create a big Broadway musical with elements of circus.

Stone knits puppets and vaudeville acts, songs and somersaults, as well as meld two groups of people who might not have shared a lunch table in high school — the jocks and the theatre geeks.

The show — adapted from Sara Gruen’s popular 2006 historical romance novel and with music by the band PigPen Theater Co. — follows a love triangle in a traveling circus during the Depression.

The New York Times called it “a stunning, emotional production that ”leads with movement, eye candy and awe.” Variety raved that Stone brought “it all under one spectacular tent without forgetting its human — and animal — hearts.”

Her skill is on show with the first big song — “The Road Don’t Make You Young” — a nine-minute, upbeat number that involves 23 performers, singing, dancing and flipping. It leans on circus designer Shana Carroll, who co-choreographs with Jesse Robb, both who also earned Tony nods.

The number starts with a circus train coming into town, and the audience learns about each of the characters as they get off and raise a tent. Soon we’re in the middle of a circus act, with acrobats flying through the air, twisting on ropes and poles.

That took two years to develop, and Stone calls it “the gate to the rest of the show.” She credits producers for giving her team the time to create it and to figure out the way to marry Broadway timing to circus.

“You actually have to have a little wiggle room for circus because you don’t fly through the air on the exact same counts every single time,” she says. “So everywhere throughout the show and the number, there’s always a little bit of wiggle room. We’ve had to build it in for safety.”

Rick Elice, the playwright of “Jersey Boys” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” who earned a Tony nod for “Water for Elephants,” said he was intrigued when Stone auditioned as director and spoke her mind even about elements that seemed non-negotiable, like his initial framing device.

“She’s brilliant. She’s funny. She’s totally prepared. She’s fast on her feet. She’s somebody that you just love to have lunch with because you laugh a lot and you bat ideas back and forth, which to me is a great lunch,” he says.

“Water for Elephants,” framed as an elderly former circus worker fondly looking back, joins a raft of recent memory plays on Broadway like “Mother Play,” “The Notebook,”“A Beautiful Noise” and “Harmony.”

“It’s not like we all got in a room and said, ’You know what? 2024 is going to be the memory season,” she says with a laugh. She thinks it’s a byproduct of the pandemic.

“Memory plays have to do with looking back on your life and determining whether or not you did it right, and whether or not you’re still doing it right,” she says.

That became the key to how to marry circus elements in “Water for Elephants” — they are hazy memories for the main character, fragmented and not fully formed.

“I really didn’t want people arbitrarily peeling off into back handsprings for no reason. It had to really honour his most, important memories,” Stone says.

“Once you realize you’re looking at it through that prism, you don’t really want to see a literal animal. Go to the zoo if you want to see a literal animal. What you want to see is a fragment.”