London hit "War Horse" makes thrilling Broadway bow

Mon Apr 18, 2011 5:14am EDT
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By David Rooney

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - It's easy to see what attracted Steven Spielberg to British children's author Michael Morpugo's novel "War Horse."

But it's hard to imagine how the screen version, due in December, can improve upon the thrilling experience of this stage adaptation, which is as emotionally stirring, visually arresting and compellingly told as anything on the filmmaker's resume.

Produced by London's National Theater, the play premiered in 2007 and went on after two sell-out engagements to become a smash in the West End, where it's still running. This Broadway transfer makes tremendous use of the deep stage and various aisles of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, creating a spectacle both intimate and epic. The limited run is scheduled through June 26, but rapturous word of mouth seems certain to change that to an open-ended stay.

Adapted by Nick Stafford in association with the Handspring Puppet Company, the play is specific in its historic setting of World War I, yet any concerns about American audiences' distance from that conflict are unfounded. The writer and creative team make this story universal in its reflections on war, its consideration of how we define courage and cowardice, and its portrayal of the purest kind of love.

Comparisons to "The Lion King" are inevitable but also facile. While the puppetry designs of South African company Handspring and its founders Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones are the undisputed stars here, this is an entirely different, far more emotionally immersive experience than the Disney show. It belongs to a rich tradition of British story-theater that favors artisanal craftsmanship over technology. When it works, as it does so exquisitely here, this can be as transporting for adults as it is for children.

Operated onstage by teams of three or more puppeteers, the life-size horses are breathtaking in their detail. The designs eschew naturalism for constructions of leather, cloth, cane and wire that share every secret of the mechanisms involved. Yet, in every way -- their breathing, their flaring nostrils, twitching ears and soulful eyes, their powerful flanks and movements that can be skittish or graceful -- these are not cute facsimiles but flesh-and-blood creatures. What's remarkable is how quickly the puppeteers, who also provide vocal sounds for the horses, vanish through sheer force of imagination.

Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris with a fluid narrative grasp and seamless cohesion between design and performance elements, the show follows the life of a horse named Joey from birth. As a foal, Joey appears to grow before our eyes before being purchased by Ted Narracott (Boris McGiver), a Devon farmer. Ted pays a ridiculous amount for the horse merely to outbid his brother Arthur (T. Ryder Smith), their bitter rivalry shared by their respective sons, Albert (Seth Numrich) and Billy (Matt Doyle). When Ted's feisty wife Rose (Alyssa Bresnahan) learns that the mortgage money has gone on a horse not even bred for farm work, she orders 16-year-old Albert to raise the animal until it's healthy enough to fetch a good price.

Joey's speed and strength attract Arthur's attention, resulting in a bet with Ted that the horse cannot be trained to pull a plow. When Albert's perseverance wins his father the bet, he also becomes Joey's owner, nixing any plan to sell. But when Britain goes to war, and large sums are being paid for cavalry horses, Ted sells Joey to the army behind his son's back.   Continued...