By Bill Beard
Last year, when I spent the 2011 Christmas holidays in London, I tried doggedly to procure just one ticket at the New London Theatre for the hit drama War Horse, where it had been playing since it moved from Britain’s Royal National Theatre into the commercial West End in April 2009. But it was still sold out, no seats available until almost six weeks later.
Coincidentally, the film opened here in the States on Christmas Day 2011. So, when I returned home, I saw the movie before the stage production; and then still had to wait until this week, when the national tour arrived here in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace — but, of course, it was well worth the wait!
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s acclaimed children’s book of the same name, the New York production was directed by the original British team of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, with the “horse choreography” (which was absolutely brilliant) by Toby Sedgwick. (This national tour production is directed by Bijan Sheibani.)
This is a story of communication, trust and love; a bond between a boy (Albert) and his horse (Joey). It is actually Joey’s story: from the farmyard beginnings, growing into plow horse regimen and eventually forced into war horse service. And it is Albert’s remarkable love and determination to find and reunite with his beloved friend that drives the plot. The result is
a journey for each through the turmoil and treachery of cruel war.
Of course, the horses alone make this production an impressive piece. Brilliantly designed and executed by the creative team of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, they are far more than puppets. The flexible, multi-jointed skeleton, made of dampened, twisted cane, aluminum and hand-crafted leather, is covered with thin mesh “skin.” Each animal is manipulated by three actors, two inside the frame and one outside, who manage to help you, with the willing suspension of disbelief, to believe in the animal and forget the humans; except that it’s very difficult to completely ignore that third “outside” actor.
In addition, I frankly found the horses to be almost too massive, some 10 feet long and a full 8 feet tall. These are magnificent creations; but even Vienna’s Lipizzans or Budweiser’s Clydesdales are not that big. (Note: Special kudos to the design of the farmyard goose, and especially its clever manipulation by Jon Hoche!)
The cast includes a generally excellent central ensemble, with highlight individual performances by Andrew Veenstra as Albert, the boy who nurtures and loves his horse (Joey), and the very talented Andrew May as the tortured, compassionate Captain Friedrich Muller.
I remember reading, when the show first opened in London, and again in New York, of the heartfelt sentiment and captivating emotion evoked by the show; how the ending left audiences moved and tearful. But this touring production seems somewhat uninspired and overly extended; perhaps could have 20 minutes cut.
Oh, yes, the horse “puppets” are still magnificently impressive, and there are moments of real emotional contact. But the ponderous emphasis on the sound and fury of war, and the intensity and magnitude of the visual and audio evidence thereof, overshadows all else, leaving the beautiful, sensitive final reunion of friends seeming almost anti-climactic.
As mentioned above, though, the horses themselves are worth the time and trip. I definitely recommend it. However, two thoughts: Don’t expect Lion King puppetry — this is drastically different; and go downstairs before curtain time and check out a headset hearing device to help with understanding the various accents and the fast and furious dialogue. I did so for the second act, and was glad I did.
War Horse plays through Jan. 5 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
For information, call (800) 775-2000 or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
From the Dec. 26, 2012-Jan. 1, 2013, issue