Victor Frankenstein's castle laboratory for the creation of dubious human facsimiles had nothing on the Vivian Beaumont April 14 when a spectacular fire-and-light show was summoned to give dramatic animation to a life-sized, puppet-crafted horse and send him charging into any available heart in the audience.
War Horse is a play that loves theatre and all its effects and draws on not a few of them to camouflage the fact that this is actually the sort of broad-strokes plot that adolescent boys used to encounter in storybook form. Behind its massive smokescreen, you'll find a simplistic tale of a boy and his horse. The boy is Albert, an English farm lad of 16 whose chestnut horse is sold to the British Cavalry and shipped off to the French trenches of World War I.
Surely you don't have to be told the boy follows suit, from plowfield to battlefield, dodging bullets and bayonets to bring back his beloved Joey. Yes, that's the name of the horse. Not Trigger. Not Trevor. Not Colin. Joey. And when Adrian Sutton's musical score kicks up a major fuss over the war-hardships that the horse endures, it sounds a little like a dirge version of Frank Loesser's "Joey, Joey, Joey."
It's a sentimental journey, but it served Lassie well for many a moist movie. Here you hardly notice that familiar terrain because of bombasts of great theatricality.
"I'd say I'm speechless," Michael Morpurgo admitted, once the stage pyrotechnics had ceased and the party fireworks had started across the way from the Beaumont on three floors of Avery Fisher Hall. War Horse was born in his brain, after all. He committed it to paper and published it as a children's book in 1982, so he was understandably nonplused at what he had spectacularly wrought.
"It was stunning to see the energy of these American actors. Their intensity was quite amazing. They brought to this show something completely unforgettable. The first half was beautiful and lyrical, extraordinary, and, when it went to hell in the second half, it was a darker place than I have ever been with the show before.
"I would say that it has been reinvented for this country. That's what good about the National Theatre — what they've done instead of just coming in with a new show from the U.K. and saying, 'Well, we'll plunk it on the stage in America, and it's fine.' It's not fine, actually, because the Americans are not the same as the British. Why should we stick the same package here? These American actors come at this with a different history, a different kind of background altogether, and I think that Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, who co-directed this show, realized that this was a chance to look at the script and the music again and sharpen everything."
Exactement! nodded Morris, a youngish 46 who, conditioned to The Grand Scale, will be trying his hand at opera next (called The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams). "We've reworked the show for this version," he said of War Horse. "It's a strange show because it's not like a conventional play where you start with the words and then you work at how to interpret those words.
"Really, we started with the novel and a puppet, and then everyone including the writer [lest he be forgot: Nick Stafford] responded to that. The first time we made the show, a lot of it was devised in the rehearsal room. The writer would come in and respond to that, and we'd edit the writing.
"A lot of this story is told by the design or the puppetry or the music instead of words. Rae Smith did the sets and costumes; the lighting is by Paule Constable, who is extraordinary. And the video [animation and projection design] was done by a company called 59 Productions. All those people worked on the first version, but, when we came to remake the show here, we kept as many as we could from the original creative team. Some of the things that we weren't happy with in the London version, we decided to try to make them better over here. And, with the great hospitality of Andre Bishop and Bernie Gersten at Lincoln Center Theater, we did just that. We said, 'We're not just going to do three weeks rehearsal and stand the thing up. It won't work like that. We need a proper rehearsal period so we can really re-imagine the show,' and that's what we've done.
"I think that people do respond very emotionally to the show, and I think there's something rather beautiful about theatre in that. I think part of the emotional response is because it's really clear that this is not a real horse. From the beginning, when you can see the baby horse, you see three puppeteers standing around it. The audience wants it to be a real horse so the audience makes it a real horse. That's why audiences feel so much about it, because they have imagined the thing into life."
The visual impact of this stage show is so stunning that it is not surprising that there have been film nibbles in the past. "We tried to work on a film 15 years ago and failed to get it going," confessed Morpurgo. "Then, this play came about by pure accident. Tom Morris was looking for a subject for the Handspring Puppet Company, for those wonderful South African puppeteers, and what he did was look around for a book where the central hero was an animal. He just couldn't find one — and then his mum, who's here tonight, said, 'Oh, Tom, I just read this book, 'War Horse.' Read it. It's fantastic.' He read it. And, since his own grandfather had been to the First World War — with horses, it resonated, and the next thing I knew they were putting it on.
"Then Steven Spielberg comes along, sees the show and wants to make a movie of it. It's all done. It's coming out the 28th of December in the U.S. John Williams, I believe, has just done the music. The actors are all British because they're British characters, and the French actors are French, and the German actors are German. He's done it wonderfully. It's a whole new experience from the stage."
Director Jack O'Brien, who is coming from the opposite direction (having just turned a Spielberg film, "Catch Me If You Can," into a stage piece), readily attested to the changes the property has gone through crossing the Atlantic. "Oh, they've done a huge job on it," he said. "The film images are more articulate and elaborate. The second act is tighter. The horses go up and down the aisles now. And also you've got the depth of that theatre which you don't have in London. Nobody's been that far back since Henry IV. Some of my dead bodies are back there."
Another testimony from one who has seen it on both sides now — agent Lionel Larner, a Brit who says, "Blast chauvinism!" "To me, it was better than in London," he contended. "Maybe it's unfair to say, but I thought the performances were stronger. Tonight, I thought everyone was extremely strong. The performances were dynamite. The whole thing was magical. It's amazing how after a minute you're completely seduced by those horses, and you're laughing and crying and you totally care about those horses. I think it'll be the prestige hit of the season."
Seth Numrich, who just made his Broadway debut as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice but has been turning in extraordinary performances Off-Broadway for a while (On the Levee, Slipping, Blind, Dutch Masters), is the Albert whose time has come, playing the part with easy authority and earnest passion. He's acutely aware of the emotions that are triggered in the audience. "At the end, there's some very vocal reactions, and I can hear all of that, " he said. "It's really powerful to know we're affecting the audience in that way. I'm really happy that it's reaching people and that people are walking away with a great experience. I'm so honored to be a part of this experience, this production. Everything about it has been amazing. I feel like the luckiest actor alive."
His cousin Billy who troops off to war as well is played Matt Doyle in his third Broadway show (and first nonmusical). Both were congratulated by Streamers actor Hale Appleman, a recent co-star of theirs who plays a modern-dress version of Mercutio to Numrich's Romeo and Doyle's Juliet in a film the trio just did with writer-director Alan Brown called "Private Romeo."
Stephen Plunkett, who gets a memorable battlefield exit in the first act, also hails from On the Levee and was congratulated by that show's composer, Todd Almond, who is now doing the songs for Warren Leight's stage adaptation of John Knowles' classic 1959 bromance, A Separate Peace.
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