BWW Reviews: WAR HORSE is Spectacular

Joey and Topthorn.

On the heels of Memorial Day, Broadway Across America - Houston is presenting the First US National Tour of the acclaimed play War Horse. The visually spectacular production first premiered on London's Off-West End in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre. It transferred to the West End's New London Theatre, where it is still running. It enjoyed Broadway success at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at New York City's Lincoln Center. It has since been produced in Canada, Australia, and Germany. After seeing this tour, it is no surprise that everywhere the play goes, it leaves tear-soaked audiences speechless and amazed.

WAR HORSE is adapted from Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel by the same title. It tells the story of Joey, a type of horse referred to as a hunter. Joey is sold at an auction to Ted Narracott, who sacrifices his mortgage money to buy the horse. Ted' s son, Albert instantly connects with the horse and raises it; however, at the onset of World War I, Ted sells Joey to the British Calvary. Albert is crushed and attempts to enlist, but at 16 years old, he is too young. Just before Christmas, the Lieutenant who bought Joey dies in combat, and his sketch book is sent to Albert. Albert runs away from home, lies to join the British army, and searches for Joey in war torn France.

Featuring direction by Bijan Sheibani, based on the original co-direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, the tour company beautifully tells this harrowing tale of love, loss, and war. By the time adult Joey explodes onto the stage, tears began falling from the eyes of the audience, and they persisted in wetting cheeks throughout the remainder of the evening. Under Bijan Sheibani's direction, each member of the company, especially the puppeteers, masterfully communicate every emotional aspect of the performance, leaving the audience spellbound.

Catherine Gowl, Nick LaMedica & Laurabeth Breya
(Joey as Foal).

The power of the evening's performance can be mainly attributed to Toby Sedgwick's Movement Direction and Horse Choreography. His expert choices, paired with Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company's puppet design, fabrication, and direction, brings each and every animal to stunning life on stage. This team ensures that the always present and visible human puppeteers fade into the background and that the audience truly focuses on each animal as a character in the production. Likewise, the puppeteers have been coached to make the sounds of the animals, giving the performances another layer of majestic realism. Every aspect of the puppeteering, from their design to the performances of the cast operating them, is simply breathtaking.

The human characters, played by the large ensemble cast, serve as interesting portraits of the human condition during World War I. The characters that are most prominently featured in the plot, such as the Narracott family and Song Man narrator, stand out. As a full ensemble, my only complaint is that the accents used where sometimes so thick that dialogue was hard to decipher.

As Albert Narracott, Michael Wyatt Cox captivates the audience as the show's leading human character. He makes his love and admiration for Joey tangible, sharing great chemistry with the perfectly manipulated puppets. He delivers an emotionally satisfying performance that both warms and breaks our hearts.

Joey and the US National Tour of War Horse.

Maria Elena Ramirez's Rose Narracott is motherly, loving, and wonderfully strong. Gene Gillette's Ted Narracott is self-centered and troubled, adding tension to the show, even in the resolution. Brendan Murray delivers a solid performance as Lieutenant James Nicholls. Andy Truschinski is completely likeable as Albert's friend, Private David Taylor. Andrew May's Captain Friedrich Muller devastates the audience with his sincere humanity. As Emilie, Ka-Ling Cheung delivers a brilliant performance as a persevering child that is deeply affected by the horrors of war.

Perhaps one of the most invigorating characters in the play is Adrian Sutton's atmospheric and moody music, John Tams' narrative songs, Christopher Shutt's ingenious Sound Design, and John Owens' Additional Sound & Adaptation. These three immersive elements play with the heartstrings of the audience and fuse the production with cinematic elements that really allow the imaginations of the audience to kick into overdrive. As a team, these artists have created a comprehensive aural landscape for the production that purposefully never oversteps its boundaries, keeping out of the foreground. However, it is always noticeable and highly appreciated for deepening the emotional and intellectual enjoyment of War Horse.

The minimalistic Set Design by Rae Smith pairs perfectly with 59 Productions Animation & Projection Design to give audiences an intriguing and starkly picturesque visual representation of the various locales without getting in the way of the acting and puppeteering occurring on stage. Likewise, Rae Smith's costuming is period appropriate and looks great. I am particularly fond of how the puppeteers have been color coded to match the horse or animal they operate.

Despite the sheer number of tears shed during this beautiful production, the emotionally draining War Horse is must see theater. As a whole, the production is innovative, magical, and completely fascinating. I can guarantee that you have probably never seen a show quite like this. Furthermore, the artistry of the puppets and puppteering in this show is unparalleled and will not be topped for quite some time. Disney's Imagineers are typically the best when it comes to being cleverly inventive pioneers, but Disney and any other theatrical production company can learn a thing or two from South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.

The remarkable First US National Tour of National Theatre of Great Britain's production of War Horse, presented in Houston as part of Gexa Energy's Broadway at the Hobby Center, runs in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts' Sarofim Hall, 800 Bagby Street, Houston, 77002 now through June 1, 2014. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. For ticket and more information, please visit or call (800) 952.6560.

Photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg. Photos courtesy of Broadway Across America - Houston.

Catherine Gowl, Nick LaMedica & Laurabeth Breya (Joey as Foal).

Joey as a foal with Albert Andrew Veenstra (Albert) with Nick LaMedica,Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl.

Albert and Joey Andrew Veenstra (Albert) with Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, Rob Laqui (Joey) .

Albert and Joey Andrew Veenstra (Albert) with Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, RobLaqui (Joey).

Albert and Joey Andrew Veenstra (Albert) with John Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, Jessica Krueger (Joey).

Joey and the US National Tour of War Horse.

US National Tour of War Horse.

Joey and Topthorn.

GraysonDeJesus on Topthorn Michael Wyatt Cox on Joey.

Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton & Rob Laqui (Joey).

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From This Author David Clarke