Although it is not a musical, “War Horse” has more theatricality than many musicals. It is the current offering in the Broadway Series at PlayhouseSquare.
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, “War Horse” tells the story of Joey, a horse that is half bred for racing and half bred for farm work, and may be unsuited for both. It is England in 1914, at the start of World War I. The story is impressive because it is based on reality. Britain sent over one million horses into battle. Unfortunately, the cavalry was not an effective option for battle at that time. The inventions of both nerve gas and barbed wire were formidable weapons against the horses and their riders. In fact, less than 6 percent of the horses sent to war survived.
In “War Horse,” we first see Joey as a foal at auction. He is purchased for the Narracott farm where young son Albert takes to Joey. A poor family, the Narracotts sell Joey to the cavalry, and Albert can’t follow Joey by enlisting, for he is too young. The action shifts to the battlefields of France, where Joey and another horse, Topthorn, are captured by the Germans.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it sounds like the horses are as much characters in the play as the humans. They are correct. Although the story of “War Horse” is compelling and emotionally moving, it is the sheer theatricality of the stage production that is the dominant memory. “War Horse” was developed by the National Theater of Great Britain with Handspring Puppet Co. of South Africa. They created amazing puppets of horses, who are the true stars of the show. Life-sized, the horses are fabricated largely with natural materials, and are manipulated by three puppeteers. Characters can ride the animals, and in the best spirit of theater, the puppeteers actually become “invisible” as we in the audience focus on the characters of Joey and Topthorn.
“War Horse” does not skimp on human characters either. In addition to the puppeteers, a cast of two dozen play twice as many roles in the show. Alex Morf has the energy and strong physical presence for the impetuous Albert. Even on the huge palace stage, his passion and love for Joey is clear. Megan Loom is also strong as French farm girl Paulette, along with Cleveland actor Andrew May as Friedrich, a German soldier. And for those who need music as well, there is a vocalist and instrumentalist as characters in the show.
Much of the rest of the cast is used architecturally, in battle scenes and make a sweeping, stunning series of stage pictures. A huge piece of white fabric, like a torn sheet of paper, fills the top half of the stage. On it are projected drawings of battlefields, maps and other images that evoke the time and place of the scene at hand.
Go to “War Horse” for the theatricality. Be impressed with the humanity that is drawn from the characters, both human and equine. “War Horse” runs through this weekend at PlayhouseSquare.