Sunday, June 12, 2011

WAR HORSE • Vivian Beaumont Theatre

Well, here on the day of the 65th Annual Tony Awards, I've finally gotten around to posting about this show -- my favorite from this past NYC trip.

I rarely cry at the theatre.  It's happened twice -- once during WICKED's "For Good" (I was seeing it with my best friend so… you know…) and then once during the first 10 minutes of  THE LION KING because it was just so visually beautiful.  But during WAR HORSE?  I cried like a little bitch.

This play with music was adapted from a children's book of the same name that was written by Michael Morpurgo.  There's also a Steven Spielberg film in the works.  Admittedly, the book for this play has received some criticism for its simplicity, but whatever.  The real draw of this production is the life-sized horse puppets (along with a very animated little puppet goose) developed from the creative talents of the Handspring Puppet Company.  Kind of like AVENUE Q, after awhile you don't even see the puppeteers.  The team of 3 or 4 operating the horses disappear, and you're looking at a horse on stage.  The twitching ears, head shaking, the subtle movements of the front legs and hooves, the flutter of the tail, that spark in the eyes -- theatre magic, baby…

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich-The New York Times
A foal is purchased by Albert's financially irresponsible father, Ted (Boris McGiver).  Albert (Seth Numrich) is charged with taking on all of the responsibilities of raising this horse, whom he names Joey.  The audience is then sucked in with scenes of Albert and Joey forming a connection, and as anyone who has a pet knows, developing a form of communication with each other.  Albert creates a way of making Joey rear up on his hind legs.  It takes awhile for Joey and Albert to get this trick down, but once it's cemented, they use this move (with the help of Paule Constable's brilliant lighting) to beautifully transition from Joey the colt, to Joey, the majestic full-sized steed, and that moment alone evokes spontaneous applause.  After a couple of years, this dirt-poor family decides that Joey needs to earn his keep, so Albert trains Joey to plow.

Photo credit - Paul Kolnik
Then, World War I comes.  Albert's drunken gambling father looks for a way to earn a few more bucks and sells Joey into the army to the horror of his wife, Rose (Alyssa Breshnahan) and Albert.  At this point in the play, Joey traipses up one of the aisles of the theatre.  Chills…  So now poor Joey, separated from Albert, is subjected to an unfamiliar setting, gunshots and war.  The tragedy of this show is the fact that when the calvary entered the Great War, tanks, barbed wire and machine guns had been introduced.  Calvary horses were as much a casualty as soldiers with about 8 million horses losing their lives.  Yeah.  Tissues, anyone?

Joey soldiers on and makes friends of his own -- namely a veteran war horse named Topthorn -- a gloriously sleek dark mount of one of the top officers.  Once Albert finds out that the officer riding Joey has been killed (some very dramatic action where the officer is blown off of Joey in slow motion), Albert lies about his age and enters the army in an effort to find his horse.  Albert and Joey are both left with their share of scars -- literally and figuratively.

Photo credit - Paul Kolnik
The puppeteers provide the sounds of the horses -- everything from whinnying to that gentle snorting sound that they make.  The set (Rae Smith) was very simple with a backdrop of what looks like a torn piece of paper.  Images are projected onto this to beef up what's going on onstage to gorgeous effect, and incredibly striking lighting by Paule Constable reminds you of how much of an impact good lighting can make.  I can't say enough about the Handspring Puppet Company and their accomplishment of bringing some pieces of wire, leather and fabric to life.  The music by Adrian Sutton and songs by John Tams are just enough to add a little atmosphere, and evoke tears.  I sincerely hope this play wins everything it's nominated for.  It was truly an astounding production that left me teary eyed and deeply moved.  If you're in NYC and you see this show, and you don't tear up, there is something wrong with you.  Ha!  Just kidding.


Here's a trailer for the show!

Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th St. New York, NY
open run  | tickets: $75 - $125
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2pm, Sundays at 3pm

Photo credit - Paul Kolnik
Seth Numrich (Albert), Stephen James Anthony (Ensemble, Baby Joey), Zach Appelman (Ensemble, Sgt. Fine), Alyssa Breshnahan (Ensemble, Rose Narracott), Richard Crawford (Ensemble, Sgt. Thunder), Sanjit De Silva (Ensemble, Taff), Matt Doyle (Ensemble, Billy Narracott, Understudy Albert), Austin Durant (Ensemble, Chapman Carter), Joby Earle (Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn), Joel Reuben Ganz (Ensemble, Topthorn), Ariel Heller (Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn), Peter Hermann (Ensemble, Friedrich Muller), Alex Hoeffler (Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn), Brian Lee Huynh (Ensemble, Captain Stewart), Jeslyn Kelly (Ensemble, Joey), Ian Lassiter (Ensemble), Tom Lee (Ensemble, Topthorn), Jonathan Christopher MacMillan (Ensemble, Topthorn), Jonathan David Martin (Ensemble, Joey), Boris McGiver (Ensemble, Ted Narracott), Prentice Onayemi (Ensemble, Joey), Bhavesh Patel (Ensemble, Bone), David Pegram (Ensemble, David Taylor, Baby Joey), Katy Pfaffl (Ensemble, Song Woman), Stephen Plunkett (Ensemble, Nicholls), Leenya Rideout (Ensemble, Baby Joey), Liam Robinson (Ensemble, Song Man), Jude Sandy (Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn), Hannah Sloat (Ensemble, Understudy Emilie), T. Ryder Smith (Ensemble, Arthur Narracott), Zach Villa - Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn), Elliot Villar (Ensemble, Klausen), Cat Walleck (Ensemble, Paulette), Enrico D. Wey (Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn) and Madeline Yen (Ensemble, Emilie).

Sets, costumes and drawings by Rae Smith; puppet design, fabrication and direction by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company; lighting design by Paule Constable; director of movement and horse sequences, Toby Sedgwick; animation and projections by 59 Productions; music by Adrian Sutton; songs by John Tams; sound design by Christopher Shutt; music director, Greg Pliska; associate puppetry director, Mervyn Millar; stage manager, Rick Steiger.

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