Reviewed by Steve Sucato
One of the most anticipated Broadway touring productions to visit Cleveland this theater season as part of the KeyBank Broadway Series at PlayhouseSquare, War Horse not only didn’t disappoint, it wowed.
The winner of five 2011 Tony Awards including Best Play, War Horse, based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name, made an immediate impact in a performance April 10 as the stage lights of the Palace Theatre came up on a scene where a World War I-era British soldier was sketching in field when the life-size puppet of the young colt “Joey” bounded onto the stage controlled by a handful of puppeteers. The puppeteers not only controlled the horse’s rather lifelike movements, but voiced every whinny, grunt and snort the horse made. Moments later via a bit of stagecraft, the colt was instantly replaced by a towering 8 foot tall, 10 foot long aluminum-framed adult puppet version of the horse that elicited gasps from the audience who delighted in its grandeur. The play then began weaving the heartfelt and homespun tale of young Albert, who separated by circumstance from his beloved horse Joey, follows the horse into a war that would nearly cost both of them their lives.
Premiered in 2007 by The National Theatre of Great Britain and featuring the puppet wizardry of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, War Horse is as much theatrical marvel as it is a moving and compelling story.
Not unlike Steven Spielberg’s 2011 Oscar-nominated film adaptation, the two-act stage production, directed by Bijan Sheibani based on Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris original Tony Award-winning direction, had the scope and feel in its delivery of an epic motion picture.
The production starred Alex Morf as the earnest and endearing Albert Narracott, the son of a working class farmer in Devon, England. Albert acquires Joey after his father Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris), embroiled in an intense rivalry with his uncle Arthur Narracott (Brian Keane), foolishly outbids his uncle at a local horse auction paying a record price for the horse and squandering the family’s mortgage money much to the dismay of Albert’s strong-willed but tender mother Rose Narracott portrayed memorably by Angela Reed.
The real stars of War Horse however were the collection of puppet horses and animals and their puppeteers that enthralled the audience with their lifelike movements and personalities including an ill-tempered and funny goose operated by Jessica Krueger. And whom despite their skeletal frames and visible operators, quickly became perceived as being as real as their flesh and blood counterparts.
The rest of War Horse’s opening act further introduced the audience to Albert, his family and the community that served to shape Albert’s life and help create the loving bond between him and Joey.
The play’s minimalistic stage set devoid of curtains featured a large overhead video screen that was used to display text and animation that included background scenery, a timeline of the play, and images relating to the fog of war. When not working their puppets, puppeteers manipulated pieces of fencing that they turned into everything from a horse corral to a troopship.
Also integrated into the work were several troubadours who sang traditional folk songs that lent to the mood and flavor of the story.
One of the climactic moments of the first act happened when Joey, a riding horse, had to be taught to take a plow harness and plow the family’s field. In a stirring scene of grit and determination, another bet between Arthur’s headstrong father and his uncle brings out the entire village in song as Joey valiantly pulls the plow and wins the bet.
Toward the end of the act World War I breaks out and Ted hearing of a 100 pound fee paid for a horse fit for an army officer sells Joey without Albert’s permission to the army. Joey then becomes the mount of Lieutenant James Nichols (Jason Loughlin) the same officer who sketched Joey as a colt.
After a scene where Joey tussles with fellow war horse, the dominate Topthorn, the play’s first act concludes with a series of harrowing forays into battle that reveal the gruesome cost of war in life and limb.
Things come to a head in Act II as Albert, only sixteen, lies about his age to join the British army to go off in search of Joey on the battlefields of France.
The act then introduces us to a succession of colorful characters including a young private Albert befriends, a bright and curious French farm girl, Emilie (Lavita Shaurice) and the friendly and lovable German soldier Captain Friedrich Muller portrayed brilliantly by Andrew May who saves Joey after he is captured by the German army by having him pull an ambulance cart instead of returning to the front lines. Friedrich, who is disillusioned by the war and longs to go home to his family, delivers one of the play’s best lines when he says to Emilie: “This war is to make men and I am half the man I was.”
In Joey, these characters see that part of humanity that has been lost in the carnage of men fighting men. Sadly, throughout the act most all the characters we come to care for are killed.
The folly of war is best highlighted in the play’s final climactic scene where Joey, caught in the barbed wire in “no man’s land”, the gap between the German and Allied trenches, elicits a temporary ceasefire between the armies as both seek to rescue the horse from the wire before they resuming killing one another. After a congenial coin toss between two soldiers Joey is won by the British army who take him back to a camp to tend his wounds and where Albert is also after being temporarily blinded in a poison gas attack. Albert saves the horse from being destroyed and the two are reunited for good.
At its heart War Horse is a simple and relatable love story. More than that though, like its puppet horses that make little attempt to hide their inner workings, the play through its accessible inner workings reveals a poignant sense of our shared flaws and innate humanity.
War Horse continues through April 21 at the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare. Showtimes: Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 1:30 and 7:30 pm and Sunday at 1:00 and 6:30 pm. Tickets on sale at the PlayhouseSquare Ticket Office (1519 Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland), online at playhousesquare.org or by calling 216-241-6000. Group orders of 15 or more may be placed by calling 216-664-6050.