Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Review: 'War Horse' Leaps Into The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center

(all production photos: Paul Kolnik for Lincoln Center Theater)
Fading away like the stars in the morning
Losing their light in the glorious sun
Thus shall we pass from this earth and its toiling
Only remembered for what we have done

These sung words begin the dramatic and epic play that is ‘War Horse’ which takes the audience back to August 1912. Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo and after becoming a runaway hit at London’s National Theatre and then on the West End (where it is running into its third year), ‘War Horse’ finally arrives on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.

Seth Numrich
Plot focuses on a young farm boy named Albert (Seth Numrich) who bonds with a hunter colt he names Joey which his father buys at auction and cruelly turns into a plow horse. Behind Albert's back Joey is sold to a British cavalry where soon after Albert enlists and goes to France to search the battlefields for his beloved horse. The tale then takes the audience through the devastations of war as we follow the two stories of Joey and Albert to find out if they will finally meet again.

The plot has been criticized for being unsophisticated but since the story was written for children, it effectively captures those emotions of youth from memories of a pet to our first recollections of joy, heartbreak and betrayal. However the expense of telling the story of a horse is the cast become side characters with only Albert being fleshed out to see his growth from boy to man.

For example, in a scene where Albert finally tames the hunter Joey to plow the fields is the audience cheering Albert’s triumph or Joey’s skills to learn. It appears it’s the latter confirmed by the audience’s excitement when the young horse transitions to grand steed.

Seth Numrich
Director Elliott and Morris re-captures the theatrical magic from London to Broadway with an all American company and the ingenious horse designs of the Handspring Puppet Company. Through expressive body movements of the head, chest, legs and ears, the wood, mesh and metal frame of Joey is miraculously brought to life. Even a pesky puppet goose offers some comic moments through its design and manipulation.

In contrast to Joey, we also meet Topthorn, a magnificent black stallion with whom Joey rides in the war torn landscape of barbed wire, guns and tanks. Encounters with German officers provide another side of Joey’s story as one officer is desperate to save these grand horses. The war scenes in France are horrific sequences as the story pushes the point of the sacrifices these horses made for the sake of a war among men.

The thrust stage of the Beaumont is fluidly transformed from English countryside to the battlefields of France by not only the sets and costumes but projections of drawings from a sketchbook that serve as landscape backdrops enhanced by the stark lighting of Paul Constable. The music by Adrian Sutton and songs by John Tams appropriately accent the time and place.

The words “only remembered for what we have done” are again sung as the last lines of the play. It’s likely many will remember and embrace their experience at ‘War Horse’ and encourage other to take the journey. Like in London, its appeal to all ages will make this production not only the tearjerker of the season but also that rare entity: a blockbuster play.


More production photos below:

Alyssa Bresnahan and Boris McGiver
Stephen Plunkett
Matt Doyle and T. Ryder Smith
Liam Robinson and Kat Pfaffl
Seth Numrich


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