Two years ago I watched “War Horse,” a Steven Spielberg film about a boy and his horse and the war that came between them. I enjoyed the movie and was surprised to learn it had originally been adapted as a stage play.
A stage play with a horse as the lead? This I gotta see.
And now I have, and so can you. “War Horse,” winner of five 2011 Tony Awards, including Best Play, is now hoofing its way around the Fox Theatre stage. It’s an impressive and touching work that combines actors, puppetry, music and animation.
Based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, “War Horse” was adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. The story begins in the English countryside in the days leading up to the first World War. Arthur (Brian Keane) and Ted (Mat Hostetler) Narrcott are brothers and bitter rivals. They get into a bidding war over a young foal and Ted emerges the winner.
Unfortunately, Ted has just spent the mortgage for a horse that will be of no use to him on the farm. But Joey (Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger) quickly bonds with Ted’s son Albert (Alex Morf), who manages to train the horse to plow enough of a field to win a bet that saves the family farm.
When war breaks out, Ted learns that he can earn big money if he sells Joey to the military. He does so, despite promising Albert that he would never sell his beloved horse. Joey is taken in by Lieutenant James Nicholls (Jason Loughlin), who promises the grieving Albert that he will take good care of him. After learning that the lieutenant has died in battle, Albert runs off to join the army and find Joey.
“War Horse” is sappy and sentimental, about what you’d expect from a children’s novel about a boy and his horse and war. There’s a lot more going on in the film version but the stage play manages to tell a simple story quite well.
If you’ve seen “The Lion King” on stage you know how well animals can be portrayed through puppetry, but “War Horse” has the added challenge of combining animal puppets with human actors. It’s a delicate balance but the show pulls it off. Joey quickly becomes as much a fully realized character as Albert.
The set design is stark and simple, relying mainly on a jagged backdrop screen to provide black-and-white animated scenery.
While the show is not a musical there is a “Song Man” (Nathan Koci on instruments and John Milosich on vocals) who offers a signing presence at various moments throughout the play.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from “War Horse” but it turned out to be one of the more interesting and entertaining shows I’ve seen at the theater lately.
“War Horse” runs through March 24 at the Fox Theatre. http://www.fabulousfox.com/