In a season flush with new plays and musicals, who would have figured that the odds-on favorite for being the most emotionally resonant story — at times overwhelmingly so — would be the one whose main character has four legs and is played by a puppet?
Broadway works in mysterious ways.
So does "War Horse." This spellbinding show from London's National Theatre runs full gallop with theatrical magic. It is by turns epic and intimate and compels you to hold your breath in anticipation. (Steven Spielberg's film version of the tale comes out in December.)
Based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's book, which was told through an equine eye and voice, Nick Stafford's stage adaptation loses any "Mr. Ed" qualities. People do all the talking, but the hero who gets the star bow is the horse Joey.
The plot spans about six years and follows his odyssey from hardscrabble but happy peacetime England, where he's raised on a farm, to the enemy lines and brutality of World War I. Joey ends up on both sides of the gunfire and, finally, fighting for his life in a literal no-man's land.
Melodramatic? Yes. Sentimental? Sure. And the characters and dialogue are etched in clean, if broad, strokes. But narrative thinness and contrived twists (there are some) are offset by the sheer scope of the production and the achievements of the South African puppet company Handspring.
The work by puppet designers Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler is exquisite. They bring Joey and Topthorn, a fellow war horse, and other animals so authentically to life you believe you're seeing the real deal.
Three people operate each life-size horse. As they move the legs, rustle a tail, whinny and snort, puppeteers somehow fade from sight, even though they don't try to hide.
Co-directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris also make no effort to sugarcoat the horrors of war; there are wrenching images of animals driven to near-death, and bodies of fallen men and horses littering the ground.
The duo oversees a physical production that shows care and attention at every turn. Rae Smith's sets, costumes and homey line drawings capture a time, place and way of life.
Paul Constable's jagged shards of lighting and Christopher Shutt's eardrum-shaking soundscape put you in the middle of a battle zone.
The show's fine ensemble is 35-strong. Seth Numrich, seen recently in "The Merchant of Venice," brings warmth and humanity to Albert, the young farm boy who raises Joey and risks his own life to bring him home from war. Peter Hermann, known from "Law & Order: SVU," does fine work as a compassionate German soldier and family man who ends up holding Joey's fate. Kate Pfaffl impresses with a rich and haunting singing voice. She punctuates scenes with simple but stirring folk songs.
"War Horse" is rooted in children's literature, but its themes of love, war and the life-sustaining bond between people and animals speaks to audiences of every age.
What it has to say, it does so onstage with enormous power and imagination.
A magnificent, exhilarating feat is taking place at Lincoln Center. Over the course of nearly three hours, the London import "War Horse" takes us to a farm in Devon, England, then to the killing fields of WWI. We marvel as life-size horse puppets gallop onstage -- with actors riding them. We cringe in horror as troops charge and die under full-on shellings.
But if "War Horse" is theater as epic spectacle, it's also theater as shared, intimate emotion.
Adapted from Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's book, the show follows the shared journey of a 16-year-old farm lad, Albert (Seth Numrich), and his chestnut horse, Joey.
Brought together when Joey was a foal, the two are separated when the mount is sold to the British Cavalry and packed off to the French front. An inconsolable Albert enlists, hoping to retrieve his best friend.
What makes the show so powerful is the way the storytelling and the stagecraft are intricately melded. Directed with poetic ingenuity by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris for the National Theatre of England, "War Horse" is full of breathtaking moments.
Though the horses don't look realistic -- their cane-and-gauze armature is visible, as are their handlers -- they are lifelike, with twitching ears and heaving flanks, trembling in expectation, fear or agony.
This makes Joey's ordeal all the more wrenching, because as soon as we meet him, we feel he's as alive, as full of personality as any of the humans around him. And those are shown with an always kind eye -- Peter Hermann plays a melancholy German officer who protects Joey and his war buddy, the black stallion Topthorn.
This is only one of the many empathetic bonds the show creates: not only among those onstage, but also between the characters and their audience. "War Horse" never talks down to its viewers, no matter how young they may be.
Some have branded the show as sentimental. Have we become so jaded that people are called suckers for crying during a good, old-fashioned tale? "War Horse" isn't sentimental: It's just not afraid to be emotional. Ultimately, the show succeeds because it tells children and reminds adults that some of life's joys are made great by terrible hardships.
It’s swoon time, ladies and gentlemen. Joey, the current marquee topper at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, is the kind of matinee idol New York hasn’t seen in ages. Tall, high-strung and handsome, with chestnut hair and eyes that catch the light, this strapping leading man is so charismatic you can imagine fans of both sexes lining up at the stage door with bouquets. Or maybe lumps of sugar and handfuls of hay.
One problem, though, with this fantasy. Once the curtain calls are done at “War Horse” — the imported British weepie that opened on Thursday night — Joey, its title character, ceases to exist until it’s showtime again. He is, it seems, one of those fabled stars of the stage who comes fully alive only when an audience is watching. Which, of course, makes him all the more captivating.
It takes a team of strong but sensitive puppeteers to bring Joey, a half-Thoroughbred who is sold into a World War I cavalry regiment, to life-size life. And it is how Joey is summoned into being, along with an assortment of other animals, that gives this production its ineffably theatrical magic. Steven Spielberg is working on a film version of “War Horse,” a 1982 novel for children by Michael Morpurgo. But nothing on screen could replicate the specific thrill of watching Joey take on substance and soul, out of disparate artificial parts, before our eyes.
This enchantment is the work of the designers Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, for the Handspring Puppet Company, based in Cape Town. And the spell cast has been strong enough to turn “War Horse,” which originated at the National Theater in London, into a runaway West End hit. A show that might otherwise have registered as only an agreeable children’s entertainment has been drawing repeat grown-up customers, who happily soak their handkerchiefs with wholesome tears.
Will Joey inspire the same success in New York? Of course we have heard about how otherwise stoical Britons fall into sobs at the sight of an imperiled steed or hound. But I’ve seen plenty of Americans get soppy over animals in ways they never would over mere human beings. I once attended a midnight show of Mr. Spielberg’s “Jaws,” where the audience was heartily enjoying the carnage wrought by a man-eating shark until a pooch was seen swimming in the ocean, and someone seated near me, expressing the feelings of multitudes, called out, “Oh, God, not the dog!”
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, from Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Mr. Morpurgo’s book, “War Horse” taps that same keg of emotion. It’s “Oh, God, not the horse,” elicited to bring home the savagery of war. The play also speaks, cannily and brazenly, to that inner part of adults that cherishes childhood memories of a pet as one’s first — and possibly greatest — love. This is a show for people who revisit films like “National Velvet” and “Old Yeller” when they need a good cry.
In truth, the script of “War Horse” makes that of “National Velvet” (I mean, the heavenly 1944 movie, starring the 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor) seem like a marvel of delicacy. Beautifully designed by Rae Smith (sets, costumes and drawings) and Paule Constable (lighting), this production is also steeped in boilerplate sentimentality. Beneath its exquisite visual surface, it keeps pushing buttons like a sales clerk in a notions shop.
The plot is your usual boy-meets-horse, boy-gets-horse, boy-loses-horse fare. (To say whether boy gets horse again at the end would be telling.) The boy is Albert Narracott (a very good Seth Numrich), the son of a ne’er-do-well, liquor-loving Devon farmer (Boris McGiver) and a hard-working mum (Alyssa Bresnahan), who strives to keep peace between her menfolk. When Dad, drunk as usual, buys Joey at an auction — an act of sibling rivalry toward his hoity-toity brother (T. Ryder Smith) — young Albert takes on the animal’s care and feeding.
The early scenes of Albert taming Joey the colt and later teaching Joey the grown horse (they are two different puppets) to plow a furrow are nigh irresistible. (A charmingly fractious puppet goose also figures in the early scenes.) Joey is the platonic ideal of a stallion, with deeply expressive body language (his ears alone speak volumes) and no embarrassing habits like leaving piles of dung in his wake.
The show’s storybook sensibility is enhanced by projections of drawings by Ms. Smith on what looks like an outsize strip of torn paper, which fluidly convey shifts of time and setting. After Joey is sold by Albert’s father to a cavalry regiment bound for France, the production’s look segues from idyll to nightmare, with harrowing images of walking corpses, enveloping shadows and death-machine tanks and guns.
And of barbed wire, on which many a good horse met its end during World War I. (The show emphasizes how the use of horses in that conflict was a cruel anachronism.) Though human characters repeatedly bite the dust, it’s the horses on which our deeper hopes and fears are focused. (We meet several other war horses, including the fully defined, magnificent Topthorn, a seven-footer and Joey’s best friend, after Albert.) And it’s the visions of their being fatally tangled in wire that are the show’s most unsettling.
The human factor in the war-is-hell scenes (which feature a horse-loving German officer, played by Peter Hermann) is less convincingly drawn, incorporating clichés that have been staples of combat-theme films since the dawn of movies. Some of the melodramatic plot turns used here were old when David Belasco started out. And though the show has been trimmed and tightened since I saw it in London in 2009, at more than two and a half hours, it starts to feel ponderously long.
The characters are drawn in the broad strokes you associate with children’s literature, which limits the actors. Mr. Numrich achieves the transition from boyhood to manhood quite fetchingly, without violating Albert’s essential virginal nature. But it’s Joey and the mighty Topthorn who have the most complete personalities and who keep us watching as the plot plods on.
Every so often, a pair of balladeers (Kate Pfaffl and Liam Robinson) show up to sing about how we all “shall pass from this earth and its toiling” and be “only remembered for what we have done.” The implicit plea not to be forgotten applies not just to the villagers, soldiers and horses portrayed here, but also to theater, as an evanescent art that lives on only in audiences’ memories.
Judged by that standard, much of “War Horse” evaporates not long after it ends. But I would wager that for a good while, you’ll continue to see Joey in your dreams.
When it reaches the screen as a Steven Spielberg movie, "War Horse" will have real, live animals to represent the 8 million horses that were killed in World War I or sold to French butchers at the end. But no one who sees the National Theater of Great Britain's haunting stage version of Michael Morpurgo's children's novel about a 16-year-old farmboy who follows his beloved horse into war will ever forget Joey -- a puppet fabricated of wood and mesh and metal and manipulated by three human puppeteers, but so full of life you'd swear he had a soul.
Since this story was written for children, the plot is plain and the emotions are primal -- the better to rip your heart out.
A sensitive boy named Albert (wonderfully delicate work from Seth Numrich) instantly bonds with the hunter colt that his father (Boris McGiver) impetuously buys at auction and cruelly turns into a dray horse. When this drunken lout later sells Joey to the British cavalry, Albert enlists in the infantry and goes to France, making his way from one battlefield to another in search of Joey, who survives through the working skills he acquired as a farm horse. Four years later, in the devastated wasteland of the Somme Valley, Albert finally finds Joey, no longer fit for hauling heavy weapons and human corpses, and about to be put to death.
That's the simple story, which, for all its ferocity, is not so much an anti-war play as a play about the false and brutal lessons that boys learn from their fathers (and the father figures who govern them), and must unlearn at their own peril. But the telling of this age-old tale is pure theatrical magic in this story-theater-like production staged for an all-American company by Marianne Elliott (an associate director of the National) and Tom Morris (a.d. of Bristol Old Vic) and given its heart by the magnificent horsemanship of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, creative masterminds of the Handspring Puppet Company.
The vast stage of the Vivian Beaumont undergoes a terrible transformation (in the hands of scenic designer Rae Smith and the projection house of 59 Prods.) as the soft green hills of the English countryside give way to the blue-black skies and blood-soaked earth of the battlefields in France. (Paule Constable did the extraordinary lighting.) "Don't show any fear or pity," the officer riding Joey advises his cavalry when they arrive at the western front and encounter their first group of wounded soldiers and exhausted horses -- puppets all.
But pity and fear are the only emotional options when Joey and his equine comrades, led by a majestic black stallion named Topthorn, obediently ride into this nightmarish landscape and begin falling to the modern weapons of barbed wire, automatic machine guns and tanks. With the exception of two bothersome folk singers wailing loudly about what we can plainly see, the hellish sounds of war (Christopher Shutt's contribution) are articulate accompaniment to the savage battle scenes.
Some vestiges of humanity do survive in this dreadful place. The boyish exchanges between Albert and the young private (David Pegram) hunkered down with him in the trenches are sweet and sad. Even more compelling are the desperate efforts of the German field officer (played with exquisite feeling by Peter Hermann) to save Topthorn, the great war horse abandoned in battle.
The astonishing thing about all these life-sized horses -- the beautiful beasts who go off to war and the emaciated creatures who collapse in the mud or emerge in tatters at the end -- is the source of life that animates them. Amazingly, none of that vitality is reflected in their eyes, which are flat and inexpressive against the transparent fabrics that cover the sculptural complexity of their visible skeletons.
Under the directorial hand of Toby Sedgwick, the horse-handling puppeteers (three to each horse) bring them to life through movement alone, in ways that are both dramatically dynamic and incredibly subtle. Topthorn is fearsome in battle, and from the very first moment we meet Joey he's as warm-blooded and full of personality as any creature alive. It's a life that manifests itself in the tossing head, the heaving chest, the twitching ears, the quivering flanks -- the very beat of his heart. His very big heart.