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  • August 23, 2014

War Horse: Theater Review - Ladue News: Arts & Entertainment

War Horse: Theater Review

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Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2013 12:05 pm | Updated: 12:16 pm, Sun Mar 17, 2013.

Story: Ted Narracott, the town drunk in Devon, England, puts up his rent money in order to outbid his well-to-do brother Arthur at a local auction for a foal whom he brings home to his wife Rose and son Albert. Rose is distraught over her husband’s reckless spending spree, but Albert is delighted. He quickly names the foal Joey and goes about caring for him daily.

Joey is high-spirited and not suited to farm labor, so when Ted makes another foolish wager with his brother, that Joey be taught to plow or he will be given to Arthur for his son Billy, Rose and Albert are disconsolate. With just one week to train him, Albert relies on his bond with Joey to convince the horse to accept a harness and, miraculously, plow a small bit of land in order for Ted to win the bet.

Eventually, though, Ted breaks his word to Albert and does sell Joey, who ends up mounted and fighting in the ranks of English troops on the European continent in World War I. Albert lies about his age in order to join the military in an attempt to find Joey, as they and others endure tragedies and hardships throughout the long and brutal duration of “The Great War.”

Highlights: Writing an anti-war story is unsurprising; after all, how often are you going to come across a pro-war tale? What makes War Horse so endearing and affecting is that war is the secondary thread in this yarn behind the emotional and deep-felt bond between a lad and an animal he loves. Anyone who has ever considered a pet to be a member of the family rather than a possession will understand this.

From its start to the conclusion that perhaps takes too long to reach, War Horse is a profoundly moving experience, thanks to the expert work of everyone involved. Small surprise that it continues to play in London, where it opened in 2007 and has been performed continually in the West End since 2009.

Other Info: The Broadway version, which opened in 2011 and closed in January, won six Tony Awards, including Best Play and a special Tony given to the Handspring Puppet Company for its magical work in portraying Joey, his German adversary-turned-friend Topthorn and other horses.

Based on a 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted to the stage by Nick Stafford in association with Handspring Puppet Company, War Horse is smart, stirring and sensitive and given a first-rate interpretation in the touring company production playing at The Fox.

Watching the puppeteers manipulate Joey’s 120-pound frame, moving his ears and tail and mouth with impeccable timing to match the sound design, is quite remarkable. It’s certainly reminiscent of The Lion King, but it has a majesty all its own as the 10-foot-long, 8-foot-tall Joey is maneuvered with the smoothest dexterity. The touring rendition features the talents of Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for the Handspring Puppet Company.

War Horse won Tony Awards for set design, lighting design and sound design, all very apparent in the wondrous creations conceived by Rae Smith, whose etchings come to life on a sepia-toned background canvas and whose costumes set the story squarely in the World War I era; the pronounced lighting by Paule Constable, adapted by Karen Spahn, that accentuates battle scenes; and the sound designed by Christopher Shutt and adapted by John Owens that uncannily matches Joey’s neighing as well as a panoply of the grisly chords of war.

Originally co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, the touring version is cleverly guided by Bijan Sheibani, who is equally effective with poignant relationship moments as with the bombast of battle scenes, although the second act tends to drag compared to the brisk and compelling first half.

We’re introduced to the yarn by a pair of minstrels, Nathan Koci playing accordion to accompany vocalist John Milosich, who offer an affecting selection of English folk tunes courtesy of “song maker” John Tarns. Additional music is provided by Adrian Sutton under Greg Pliska’s music direction.

The cast includes a strong performance by Alex Morf as the dedicated Albert, Mat Hostetler as his wastrel father Ted, Angela Reed as his loving mother Rose, Brian Keane as his proper Uncle Arthur and Michael Wyatt Cox as his timid cousin Billy. Jason Loughlin plays Lt. James Nicholls, who cares for Joey in the army until his own untimely death.

Brandon Drea plays Albert’s military chum David, Andrew May is the German soldier, Captain Friedrich Muller, who tires of the mind-numbing bloodshed of the war in his efforts to free Joey, and Lavita Shaurice is the farm girl Emilie who cares for Joey.

War Horse seamlessly weaves two tales into one in sketching an indelible portrait of love and loyalty between the human Albert and his valiant, four-legged friend.

Play: War Horse

Group: Touring Company

Venue: Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Blvd.

Dates: Through March 24

Tickets: $15-$66; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com

Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Brinkhoff/Mogenburg

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