The Award Winning British and Broadway production of "War Horse" finally arrives in Los Angeles -- and boy, what a theatrical experience it is. While many know only of the Spielberg film of the same name or of the young adult novel, "War Horse" became a phenomenon in London when its blend of puppetry and drama left a lasting impression on audiences.
If you haven’t seen the film, the story is a simple one. A British farm boy named Albert (Andrew Veenstra) becomes attached to a young horse after his father Arthur (Brian Keane) wins him in a bidding match against his town rival. His wife Rose (Angela Reed) is non-plussed as to their new border as there is rent to pay and the foal, she feels, will be useless. But Albert and the foal he names "Joey" bond, and as months go by, their friendship becomes cemented.
A year or so later, with the farm struggling, Arthur sells Joey to the British army and boy and horse are separated. Here we see Joey’s journey as a war horse along with his friendship with a black stallion named Topthorn, while Albert struggles with not knowing where Joey is and, eventually, joins the army in the hopes of finding him.
The whole affair is a bit like an elaborate episode of "Lassie" in that it’s a classic story of boy and an animal he falls hard for. Here, the animal is a horse and that horse is an elaborate puppet. And man, oh man, what a puppet it is. If there is any doubt that a wire and fabric "horse" can elicit real emotion from an audience, this play will make that question moot.
From the moment the foal arrives, we are enchanted. When Joey turns from foal to full grown steed (in a stunner of a moment), we are floored. But as the play progresses and Joey’s mannerisms, reactions and connection with the actors intensify, we believe it all. What the puppeteers do is truly astonishing.
The play itself is a bit different from the film and not having read the novel, I’m not sure which was more faithful. Although in all fairness, having seen the film, it was nice to then see something that wasn’t the same, as this gave the show an element of surprise and wonder. It has its occasional misstep, mostly in some of the casting and an overlong second act, but it’s so genuinely moving and so lovely, it’s hard to focus on anything negative.
Set on a black stage with spare props and set outlines, there is a screen that hangs above the action that references a piece of paper torn out of a journal by Albert in a pivotal scene. On this screen, we see various pen and ink sketches that tell us where we are and what year we are in, as well as show simple animation that give a sense of place.
If the set and drawings weren’t enough, Rae Smith also created the show’s detailed costumes. Lighting by Paule Constable and Karen Spahn is wholly effective and creates some lovely moments as well as some full on jaw-droppers. Music by Adrian Sutton is beautiful and sparse and gives the show an epic feel.
But it is the puppetry that will stun you the most. Created by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones and choreographed by Toby Sedgwick, it is hard for us to disbelieve that these horses are real. The movements of the head and body are one thing to get down precisely, but add into that the twisting and twitching of their ears, the random flicks of their tails, and the subtle suggestion of "humanity," and you have a crew of puppeteers that are master craftsmen that demand recognition.
On opening night, these experts consisted of Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl, and Nick Lamedica as the Joey the Foal, and Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, and Rob Laqui as Joey as an adult. Jon Hoche, Danny Beriuti, and Aaron Haskell play the role of Topthorn.
A story that will appeal to both adults and children, "War Horse" is a gorgeously realized production that might be a simple (and occasionally confusing) story, but the lavish production is anything but. Yet as intricate as the puppet horses are, they become such an effortless part of the story you forget they aren’t real. And by the end of the two and half hour running time, the tears flowing down your cheeks will be the proof.