Water for Elephants Makes a Big Splash on Broadway


Based on Sara Green’s 2006 critically acclaimed bestselling novel, Water for Elephants premiered at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre last year before landing on Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on March 21st to glowing reviews. The New York Times calls it “a gorgeously imaginative Broadway musical” and Variety hails it as a “seamless integration of theatrical and cirque artistry”.

This breathtaking production entertains with daring acrobats, knife throwers, and visually stunning puppetry. The producers and design team, including Walter Trarbach (sound), David Bengali (projection), Bradley King (lighting) Takeshi Kata (scenic), turned to technology partner PRG to provide comprehensive services, including audio, video, lighting, scenery and automation for this stunning spectacle. Alex Donnelly, PRG VP and General Manager for Broadway said, “We have a long relationship with the producers who reached out to us before the show even went to the Alliance Theatre. So, from the beginning, we were working closely with the creative, design, and production teams on the technology and solutions that would allow them to achieve their creative goals. For example, we hosted materials and products tests in our NJ shop and supported a multi-week rehearsal on a soundstage to hone the audio system. Being involved in a show early like that is invaluable not just for PRG, but for the show as well.”

A key challenge lay in the sound design, which incorporated the bustling energy of a circus, locomotives, puppetry, and, of course, the voices of the performers. When asked about approaching the particulars of this project, Walter Trarbach replied, "I was fortunate to partner with Angela Baughman, a sound effects specialist and John McKenna as system architect. We rehearsed on a sound stage for three weeks before joining the cast and the rest of the creative team to start working on vocal mixes and implementing sound effects. From there, we began layering in ambient sounds, like people working at a circus tent site and general crowd ambiance at a speakeasy. We used these effects to establish different locations and moods for the audience. We used train whistles and tones to increase tension or ghostly whooshes to help cement certain emotions with the audience."


Integral to the story are three puppets—a horse, a little dog and Rosie, the elephant—each treated as individual characters with distinct emotions. Working with the puppet director, the sound team synchronized animal sounds to puppet movements in order to bring them to life. Trarbach incorporated KV2 ESR215 MKII, Meyer Leopard and L-Acoustics 5XT and X8 loudspeakers to deliver precise and high-quality sound for every aspect of the performance.

Adding to the cohesive sound and visual experience are David Bengali's extraordinary projections. "Projection played a crucial part in the visual aesthetics of Water for Elephants. The show uses projection significantly; however, we wanted it to feel like something other than a tech-driven show. Our goal was to create an experience that felt analog, one that celebrates the human and the hand-made," explained Bengali.

Bengali was inspired by matte-paintings like those seen in great epic films of the 1930s and 40s, as well as paintings by Hudson River School artists. Bengali described the evolution of his design from the Alliance Theater to Broadway. "At the Alliance, we sometimes approached the upstage LED wall as more of a traditional cyc. For Broadway, we changed the look of the projections to include more detailed, painterly skyscapes in keeping with the rest of the show. Even for cues and artwork that seem pretty similar to the Alliance version, we did a ton of new work in subtle ways - a slight shift of hue here, an added highlight on a cloud there: It's those little details that can make all the difference and emotionally impact the audience," Bengali explained.


On Broadway, the production uses a 53’ wide x 27’ high LED wall. "We chose the ROE CB5 LED because it outshines other options in its ability to produce subtle and painterly effects. It responds beautifully to fine gradations of color in both bright and dark imagery,” Bengali said.

As a projection designer who loves to work with puppetry, Bengali created evocative scenes that echoed the puppets in dreamlike projections while creating the sense of additional animals on stage. Collaborating closely with Lighting Designer Bradley King, he blended projections of filmed and animated content using a pair of converged Barco UDX-4K40 projectors with shadows created by stage lighting. For his design, beyond Bengali’s Hudson River School painter references, King drew from what he describes as the show’s emotional core: the music. Extensive rehearsal time was critical in lighting acrobats safely, ensuring precise timing and avoiding glare in performers’ eyes. King’s design included Mac Ultra fixtures from Martin for its rich color options and high output, along GLP’s X5 for accurate skin tones. The new GLP X5Cs (the mini version of the X5) were strategically placed in the theater’s large scenic pit rail to enhance important footlight and shadow effects.


Last but not least, Scenic Designer Takeshi Kata created a wonderous, magical set that coalesced the stagecraft of a large-scale Broadway musical with a live circus performance. Four scaffolding units – the tallest is nearly 13' and the widest is 8' - facilitate much of the action. In keeping with the organic feel of the show, the actors continually reposition the stage’s scaffolding to become new performance spaces used by up to twelve actors, acrobats, and circus performers. For example, at one point, a wire is locked into the top rails of one scaffold to create a tightrope. Other standout scenic elements include the electrified proscenium portal and the sophisticated haze system that was built into the stage deck to tightly control the smoke effects.

When asked about working with PRG on this elaborate and technically challenging production, Bengali said, “I've worked with PRG on several design projects over the years. Even before we started our out-of-town run in Atlanta, Rob Harris, Alex Donnelly and the rest of the PRG team were there to support us, bringing in different products for us to compare and giving us time in the shop to test and evaluate. They really understand the unique needs of theatrical designers,” said Bengali.

Now people can witness the magic for themselves…

Water for Elephants is currently playing at the Imperial Theatre.