The set-up: The fabulous curmudgeon of vaudeville and film, W.C. Fields, who knew all the tricks about how to steal a scene, is supposed to have said, "Never work with children or animals." The audience zeroes in on the adorable tyke or equally appealing dog (Lassie, anyone?), penguin (Mary Poppins, perhaps), or extraterrestrial (E.T. quickly springs to mind) and never lets go. The poor actor doesn't stand a chance.
Pity, then, all the actors who have to perform alongside "Joey," the magnificent beast at the center of the National Theatre of Great Britain's touring production of the award-winning epic War Horse, presented by Gexa Energy/Broadway At the Hobby.
Joey is the most incredible creature, full of life and vigor, whose every emotion is completely realized on stage. Strength, pathos, romance, humor, he's got it all. He's the star of the show, and a more appealing leading man would be hard to find. Tall, dark, and handsome - that's Joey. And so full of stage presence he's electrifying. We can not take our eyes off him.
The execution: Of course, the best part about him, and the best part of the show, is that he's a puppet. A superb make-believe animal constructed of bamboo piping, gears, an aluminum spine, bicycle brake cables, and shredded Tyvek mane and tail. This auburn beauty is operated by three "artists." (I wouldn't dare call this gymnastic trio puppeteers.) The talented threesome are Jon Hoche, Patrick Osteen, and Gregory Manley, who control the head and ears, the front legs and Joey's breathing, and the back legs and tail. Given extraordinary and subtle movement by this dedicated threesome, Joey literally bursts into life, trotting, galloping, nuzzling, snorting, tipping his ears, swatting his tail. Created by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of their South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, "Joey" won a well-deserved Special Tony Award in 2011 for his superlative design. He's certainly the most three-dimensional character on stage.
Even when portrayed as an ungainly foal in the early scenes (operated by Mairi Babb, Catherine Gowl, and Nick LaMedica), he captures our eye and immediately wins our heart. When he grows up and makes his "star turn" rearing up out of the Devon countryside fog, we weep out of sheer joy from such theatrical magic. There's never before been a character onstage like Joey. Whatever he does, he holds us spellbound. And believe me, he goes through hell. His adventures make us cry, laugh, hold our breath in anguish, gasp in terror, and then weep some more. When he's not on stage, we pine for him to make a return. It's a dramatic arc that Sir Lawrence Olivier would be proud of.
On a hardscrabble English farm prior to WWI, young Joey is bought at auction by drunk Ted (Gene Gillette) to spite his rich brother, who wanted Joey for his thoroughbred "hunter" qualities. Ted has spent the mortgage money on this useless purchase, and wife Rose (stalwart Maria Elena Ramirez) is not happy. Young son Albert (Michael Wyatt Cox) falls hard for the young colt and is put in charge of its upbringing, training Joey to be the farm's plow horse. (While Mr. Cox is appealing and sympathetic throughout, he seems too tall and a tad too old to be a truly convincing teen.) "We'll be together forever," vows Albert, which means trouble's coming soon. It does. War breaks out, and Dad, breaking his promise to Albert, sells Joey to the army. Joey is shipped to the battlefields of France.
Distraught, young Albert runs away from home and, lying about his age, enlists in hopes of finding his beloved horse. The horrors of trench warfare - for man and horse - are savagely pictured. The anachronistic horse is no match for the new modern tank, the machine gun, or the vicious barbed wire. Entire troops are decimated; horses die from exhaustion. Joey's extraordinary travails - cavalry horse for the English, caisson puller for the Germans, trapped in No Man's Land - are coupled with Albert's equally traumatic experiences as the war rages. They both grow up, whether they want to or not.
The entire production is wrapped in the most superlative stagecraft imaginable. The war scenes, carnage and all, are vividly executed. There's a stunning cavalry charge in slow-motion, as well as a skeletal tank that careens right at us. Another battle is conveyed by one blinding white flash. While minimal in design, the expressionism works like gangbusters. On the farm, there's a comical, cranky goose on wheels (operated by Jessica Kreuger).
As if from the very pages of Lieutenant Nicholls's (Brendan Murray) sketchbook, who we see drawing at the beginning of the show, the backgrounds are black and white animations projected upon a torn-out page: a charcoal sketch of bucolic farmlands, a French town, the jagged fence posts protecting the trenches. After one awful battle, the screen slowly blooms with blood-red splotches. Sets, costumes, and drawings are by Rae Smith. It's all amazingly simple and effective.
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Directed for the national tour by Bijan Sheibani, adapted from the original direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, the play unreels like a dream. There's melodrama aplenty, and playwright Nick Stafford - assisted by Handspring - crafts a beguiling, breathless tale from Michael Morpurgo's novel. The itinerant Song Men (Spiff Wiegand and John Milosich) are an unnecessary touch, for while their folksy tunes might add atmosphere, they don't add clarity. They sing about what we already know. However, the evocative background music by Adrian Sutton complements the action with telling efficiency. When was the last time you went to a play that had a music score? This stage soundtrack, like a very good film score, augments the emotion of each scene so well you may not realize how much it adds to the drama, or that's it's there at all.
Speaking of sound, the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire and the deafening boom of cannon are aptly terrifying and warlike, but the English accents are thick as clotted cream. In the cavernous Hobby, known to swallow sound, much of the dialogue arrives muffled. It's like listening through oatmeal.
The verdict: As a theatrical experience like none other, War Horse astonishes with technical wizardry and emotional wallop. This is a weepie of the highest caliber. Albert may be hellbent on finding his pet - and we're on the edge of our seat hoping all will be well - but the humans take a backseat to Joey. It's not that we don't care about them; they just seem so puny next to this strikingly alive equine star. No one can possibly match his undeniable animal magnetism.
War Horse runs through June 1. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at BroadwayAtTheHobbyCenter.com or call 800-952-6550. $58.65-$112.15.