It’s not often a Broadway show can be described as “spectacle,” but “Water For Elephants” certainly qualifies.

Its stage is filled not only with actors, singers, and dancers, but acrobats, too. They’re all part of the traveling Benzini Brothers circus, whose story is told in flashback. The plot begins with an older man named Jacob (Gregg Edelman) wandering away from his retirement home group after seeing the circus. Backstage, he’s stopped by a couple of performers who try to shoo him away until they learn he worked for the Benzini Brothers’ show during the depression — and was present when disaster struck.

From there, we’re transported back to 1931, where Jacob (now played by Grant Gustin) hops onto a passing train to get away after a family tragedy. Unbeknownst to him, it’s a circus train traveling from one venue to another. He becomes enamored of the circus personnel he meets, especially Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), who does an act with a horse that’s the star of the show. Unfortunately for Jacob, Marlena is married to August (Paul Alexander Nolan), the circus’ owner, ringmaster, and cruel taskmaster. When August hires Jacob as the circus veterinarian, we know that things will eventually come to blows between the two men vying for Marlena’s affections.

But “Water For Elephants” isn’t solely about this love triangle. As the story plays out, we see remarkable feats of acrobatics. Flipping and flying through the air. Dancing over and around each other. Juggling knives. Climbing up a pole and then sliding down head-first, stopping just before hitting the floor. The performers move themselves (and pieces of the set) with dazzling precision often, often with several doing different things simultaneously. At times, I didn’t know who to watch, like being in the audience for a three-ring circus.

In addition to the human elements, there is also a menagerie of animals portrayed by puppeteers in masterful costumes and rigs, including the new star of the show, Rosie, an elephant. We first see her in silhouette, back lit behind a screen, but when she finally makes a full appearance on stage, the audience erupts in appreciation. I never saw the stage versions of “War Horse” or “The Lion King,” which used similar puppets to portray their animals. But I can tell you that the effect of watching them in this show was to forget they were being manipulated by humans. Stunning.

It’s rare to see a show with this many pistons — including a cast of two dozen people — all firing perfectly, but director Jessica Stone and her colleagues manage to merge choreography, exuberant songs (with a real orchestra in the pit), and clever set design to create a seamless and thrilling production.

“Water For Elephants” is based on Sara Gruen’s 2006 bestseller, which was made into a 2011 movie starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, and Hal Holbrook. But it wasn’t until 2024 that it was transformed into a Broadway musical spectacle.

My wife and I loved it.

Tomorrow: my review of a production of “Uncle Vanya” at Lincoln Center, starring Steve Carrell, William Jackson Harper, Alison Pill, and Alfred Molina.

Previously on Harris Online: