REVIEW: ‘War Horse’ runs away with hearts

Friday, 15 April 2011 06:11
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War1041411_optBritish epic about a boy and his horse enduring WWI blazes with stunning stagecraft

BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
BROADWAY REVIEW

Tremendous theater, “War Horse” has been a major hit in London since 2007 and now arrives at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the National Theatre of Great Britain production opened on Thursday.

A stunningly staged saga of a gallant horse and a teen-aged boy who endure World War One together and apart, the drama is sure to repeat its huge success here.

Probably not since “Wicked” has there been a Broadway event of such wide cross-generational appeal. It’s too intense an experience for the littlest ones, but from tween girls to granddad, “War Horse” offers masterpiece theatrics for the masses.

Get those tickets now or wait until next year.

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Few can resist the telling of this epic story of Joey, a beautiful horse who grows up with Albert, a fine British lad who later follows Joey into the wastelands of World War One. The first act suggests “National Velvet” while the second part is “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Adapted dynamically from Michael Morpurgo’s novel by Nick Stafford, the drama itself is shamelessly manipulative, sentimental stuff – pack plenty of tissues when you go — but it’s brilliantly realized in this unforgettable production directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris.

They and designers Rae Smith (set), Paule Constable (lights), Christopher Shutt (sound) and many other artists create vividly contrasting worlds for the story; misty pastoral 1910s England (complete with Ralph Vaughan Williams-like music by Adrian Sutton) followed by the smoky nightmare battlefields of France. Co-produced with Lincoln Center Theater, the show looks magnificent in the deep stage and long sightlines of the Beaumont.

The production’s truly magical component is provided by Handspring Puppet Company, which created the life-sized animals. The russet-colored Joey, his wartime comrade Topthorn and more creatures, equine or otherwise, are exquisitely-detailed creations that amazingly come to life both through their design by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones and the remarkable animation given them by their puppeteers.

The human actors prove excellent as well. Seth Numrich’s urgent Albert goes through muddy hell for his horse. Peter Hermann nobly suffers as the German officer who comes to love Joey during the war. Boris McGiver is pathetically human as Albert’s loser of a dad while Alyssa Bresnahan recalls Anne Revere in her bone-deep depiction of the boy’s flinty mother. Madeleine Rose Yen is plucky as a little French farm girl adrift in the chaos. The large company of actors sharply portrays dozens of characters in peace and wartime. The physicality of the performances and the vital choreography of the drama’s many scenes are thrilling to witness even for spectators who may find the play itself not a little obvious in its effects.

The amalgamation of superb stagecraft that makes “War Horse” such a wonder is certain to enthrall people who love the theater – and likely to hook many a lucky youngster as well.

“War Horse” continues through June 26 (at least!) at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.warhorseonbroadway.com.

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