War Horse, a big hit on the London stage, now receiving its Broadway premiere at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, is pure and simple riveting and captivating drama. The play, based on the children’s book by British author, Michael Morpugro, is renowned—and decidedly so—for its use of life-sized puppets to simulate the horses at the center of the story. Operated by three puppeteers, they breathe life into the young and mature creatures. They playfully romp around the stage, arch upward in anger or fright, and exhibit affection with a gentle nuzzle and the twitch of an inquisitive ear. Very soon you begin to form an emotional attachment to these creations as your imagination takes over and you come to believe they are fully realized animals. It is truly remarkable what Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of the South African Handspring Puppet Company have accomplished.
The backdrop of War Horse is the horror and tedium of World War I. Initially, though, we are introduced to young Albert Narracott, portrayed with exuberance and wonder by Seth Numrich, as he comes into possession of a young foal he names Joey. Within a few years the bond between the two is strong and unyielding. But then the War to End All Wars intervenes and, through a series of events, Albert’s treasured horse is sent overseas to serve in the cavalry of the British Army on the plains of France. Soon, though underage, Albert enlists in order to find his beloved steed. There is, of course, much more to the plot of War Horse, but revealing further details would be unfair and unwarranted. Why spoil the emotional rollercoaster that this production generates?
Emotion is the key word for War Horse. From almost the start we are drawn into the story and are continually captivated and enchanted. But it is not just the strength of the narrative that bewitches and mesmerizes. All the separate components of the show—lighting, sound, scenery, projections, and music--have united to create a powerful, yet poignant whole. The artistic team’s work is most brilliantly conveyed as the action switches to the war front--panic and terror become so illuminated by the flashes and resonance of bombs exploding; the simple, yet affective overhead projections that bring a sketchbook’s renderings of the war to life; the muted, but evocative set pieces; and especially the music by Adrian Sutton. His background compositions heightened the on-stage tension and mood swings like the best movie soundtrack. Don’t be surprised if he receives a Tony nomination for Best Score.
Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris work brilliantly to bring the illusion and enchantment of War Horse, with its large company of actors and aforementioned creative elements, to life. There is a lot to juggle in the production and Elliott and Morris, along with Toby Sedgwick, billed as director of movement and horse movement, are in perfect harmony presenting what is nothing short of theatrical magic.
While the attention throughout the show is justifiably focused on the equine creations, the actors and actresses are, likewise, an integral part of the show. They breathe life into the story, humanizing the wartime atmosphere at home and abroad as well as putting an all too real face on the horror of the conflict. Seth Numrich, as the farm boy turned soldier, Albert Narracott, is the center of attention in this superbly acted show but, in reality, this is an ensemble piece with each performer perfectly fitted into the production.
Kudos also go to Nick Stafford for his sure-handed, beautifully crafted adaptation of Michael Morpugro’s book which, in my opinion, is the best non-musical of the year.
War Horse, a theatrical event that needs to be experienced live—don’t wait for the Steven Spielberg movie version—and the intimate, 1,100 seat Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center is the perfect location.