In ‘War Horse,’ Equine Hero Triumphs Over Horror: Jeremy Gerard

A scene from "War Horse." The import from London’s National Theatre remains Broadway’s top-grossing nonmusical a year after opening. Photographer: Paul Kolnik/Philip Rinaldi Publicity via Bloomberg

His name is Joey, and he makes two of the most sensational stage entrances Broadway has ever seen.

In the first, near the opening of “War Horse,” he is a spirited, spindle-legged foal prancing about as if he owned the Devonshire countryside. Birds fly and chatter above him; a nosy goose eyes him warily.

A bit later he explodes through the mist, rearing and snorting, the blood of a draught-horse and thoroughbred pulsing through his veins, in a coup-de-theatre no less memorable for the fact that this magnificent creature is a puppet.

Beginning at the outset of World War I and ending with the Armistice in 1918, “War Horse” follows Joey’s ravaged and ravishing journey from country farm to the battlefields of France and home again.

It is almost coincidentally the story of Albert Narracott, the boy whose love for Joey will take him on an equally harrowing chase through the war years and finally make a man of him.

This astonishing production comes to Lincoln Center Theater from Britain’s National Theatre, where it opened in 2007 and continues in the West End. I doubt you’ll have ever seen anything like it.

Nice Ears

These are not the horse-masked dancers of “Equus.” Joey and several other steeds, notably the regal Topthorn, are life-size Bunraku-style constructions formed of bamboo ribbing, diaphanous fabric and features -- limbs, tails and manes -- that are manipulated with breathtaking acuity by three actors for each of them. I found myself won over by the meticulously choreographed movement and especially the extraordinary liveliness of Joey’s eyes and ears.

“War Horse” was first a little-heralded novel for young readers by Michael Morpurgo. It was adapted by Nick Stafford, but the real transformation was undertaken by Handspring Puppet Company, a Cape Town-based troupe whose handiwork has been seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.

Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’s simple, elegant staging presents a large company in multiple roles and with a refreshing lack of technological gimmickry. The dance-like movement created by Toby Sedgwick makes poetry of every scene. The only detraction is the portentous score by Adrian Sutton, which adds unnecessary bombast to some of the show’s most stirring scenes.

Unforgettable Joey

A broad white banner across the proscenium serves as a screen for projections by 59 Productions and elemental settings by Rae Smith (who also designed the very apt costumes) that take us from Devon to Calais and the Somme valley. Abjuring fancy special effects, “War Horse” still manages to be the great spectacle of the season.

Stafford never departs from the children’s-book contours of the story. Albert (played with intense passion by Seth Numrich) must separate from his sad loser of a father and doting mother. He will witness the thundering violence of war and the near-death of his beloved Joey. The climax, which is overwrought and even a bit silly, never is in doubt, ultimately robbing the play of deeper emotional involvement.

But Joey? He’ll nuzzle his way into your heart. You won’t soon forget him.

At the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center, Broadway at West 65th Street. Information: +1-212-239-6200; Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:
****        Excellent
***         Very Good
**          Average
*           Not So Good
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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