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Paulanne Simmons


War Horse Is a Children's Story for Adults

"War Horse"
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Vivian Beaumont Theatre
150 West 65 Street
Opened April 14, 2011
Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday thru Sunday at 8pm, matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: $75-$125 at telecharge.com or WarHorseOnBroadway.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 21, 2011

Not since Journey's End was revived in 2007 has Broadway seen such a searing depiction of World War I as National Theatre of Great Britain's War Horse, now at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

A scene from the National Theater of Great Britain. Photo by Paul Kolnik

The production is directed by two Brits, Marianne Elliott, who is associate director of the National Theatre, and Tom Morris, who is artistic director of Bristol Old Vic, but features an all American cast.

Based on a novel by children's book author Michael Morpurgo and adapted for stage by Nick Stafford, the drama is not unlike many boy and his pet stories so familiar to readers of children's literature.

Young Albert (Seth Numrich) lives on a farm with his hardworking mother, Rose (Alyssa Bresnahan) and alcoholic father, Ted (Boris McGiver). One day his father buys a horse he cannot use just to get the better of his brother, Arthur (T. Ryder Smith), a hero of past wars. In order to prevent his beloved Joey from being sold, Albert teaches Joey to pull a plow in exchange for his father's promise that the horse will be his. HIs father breaks his promise and sells the horse to the British calvary for 100 pounds. The horse is shipped to France, and the adventure begins.

A scene from the National Theater of Great Britain. Photo by Paul Kolnik. A scene from the National Theater of Great Britain. Photo by Paul Kolnik. Seth Numrich in a scene from the National Theater of Great Britain. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

So what makes War Horse so special? In the first place, the acting is superb. Numrich‘s innocence, determination and heroism are irresistible. McGiver makes the insensitive father just foolish enough to be bearable. And we certainly feel for Bresnahan's Rose, who must negotiate between her lovable son and unlovable husband.

One of the most powerful performances comes from Peter Hermann making his LCT debut as Hauptmann Friedrich Muller, the German officer who saves Joey (and another war horse named Tophorn) by putting them to work pulling ambulance carts. In many ways it is Hermann's tragic character who most fully voices the insanity of war.

A scene from the National Theater of Great Britain. Photo by Paul Kolnik

But what makes this show truly exceptional is its extraordinary use of puppets, sound effects, video and song to recreate one of the most savage wars in human history. The production reunites the original design team. Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company have supervised puppet design, fabrication and direction of not only the life-sized Joey and Tophorn (each manipulated by several men), but a friendly goose that keeps getting in the way, vultures that hover over the dead and even the attacking tanks.

In addition, Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer's videoscapes, Christopher Shutt's sound design and Adrian Sutton's music work together to tug at our heart and keep us on the edge of our seats, while John Tams's songs provide a running, folksy commentary.

There may be some who find the sentimentality and contrived ending of War Horse a bit much for adult theater. But they will surely be in the minority. This is not a play for children. And most people, despite the puppets and satisfying, if not happy, ending, will find War Horse a play that inspires respect, attention and a bit of fear.

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