BWW Reviews: WAR HORSE Is a Beautifully Staged Production at Hershey Theatre
When Michael Morpurgo was approached about turning his novel "War Horse" into a play, he was dubious at best - how to stage horses? How to stage war? But Nick Stafford took a stab at the adaptation, and The National Theatre of Great Britain had a success on its hands with War Horse. It's beloved in Great Britain, Canada, and the U.S., with five Tonys to its credit in 2011 and with an enshrinement in one of the Tonys' most famous (and still You-Tubed) moments, a duet between Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman, to Cole Porter's "You're the Top," with a line of "You're the top - you're the War Horse pony!"
Because, of course, War Horse is a great play in many ways, including one that its film adaptation could never be: it doesn't take a Spielberg, though he directed the film, to take footage of horses, but finding a way to put them on the theatrical stage and do what they're supposed to from a story takes real work. In the case of War Horse, not just its star horse, Joey, but some other military horses, flying birds, vultures, and an obnoxious farm goose are puppets, the extremely fine work of Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Those amazing puppets, as well as the human cast, directed by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, are on their national tour, currently at the Hershey Theatre. And the puppeteers who maneuver Joey and his animal friends' figures on stage, actors themselves, are properly credited in the program along with the rest of the cast and who come on stage during the bows, deservedly, both as themselves and as their characters.
Although the acting is top-notch, and there's no possible argument there, the most important thing about this tour is the staging, especially for those who have never seen the New York production. War Horse is stagecraft at its finest, from the artistry in the creation of Joey and his friends to the manipulation of them - the horses twitch their ears and flounce their tails; vultures feast on dead carcases. The goose is comic relief, a horror to everyone who deals with it. And although the puppeteers are visible on stage the whole time, their ability to blend into the scenery is instantaneous and completely effective, even while they stand in front of you. But there is more than that at work here. The creation of sets from carried-on props, creating fences, barbed wire, and the like, carried off by the actors holding them, is unlike almost any other show in how it is handled and how effective it is.
Then there's the issue of projected effects. These can be horrendous, even in some national tour shows, including some recent ones in the area, and are sometimes, as in community theatre, used as a relatively inexpensive, and also ineffective, substitute for sets. In War Horse, the use of projected animated effects, especially that of showing the pencil strokes of a military artist's sketching to create background, is particularly effective and is worthy of set and lighting designer study. If this tour does nothing but to teach stage designers how to use projections properly, it will have served the highest needs of theatre.
What to expect when you see War Horse? It is, of course, the male reader's "My Friend Flicka", a modern "Black Beauty" set during the First World War - it is the inspiring love story of a boy and his horse. The colt, Joey, is bought for more than he can afford by Albert Narracott's (Michael Wyatt Cox's) farm-owning father in order to spite his brother Arthur (Andrew Long), who is wrangling with Lieutenant Nichols (Brendan Murray) over the horse. Albert names him, trains him, and rides him while Nichols, who is also an artist, sketches the horse he never owned and its rider, and Albert's father and uncle continue to fight over everything in their lives, including the horse. A bad bet between father and uncle forces Albert to train the part-thoroughbred hunter to work as a plowhorse, which, despite tragedies, later saves Joey's life in the war. When World War I breaks out and horses as well as men are called up, Albert's father sells Joey out from under him to the Army, where Albert's one small measure of hope is that Nichols has taken Joey for his own horse and has promised to bring him back after the fighting. When Nichols is killed in battle, however, Albert is determined to rescue his horse.