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There’s nothing like ‘War Horse’

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War Horse at the Fisher Theatre

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How do you tell an objective story about the horrors of World War I? You present it all through the eyes of an objective and unwilling participant – Joey, the eponymous “War Horse.”

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That’s the approach Michael Morpurgo took to create his beloved children’s novel, War Horse, and it’s a non-political perspective that easily translated into an award-winning Steven Spielberg film. What's more remarkable is that, before the film, "War Horse" became the National Theatre of Great Britain’s epic, five-time Tony® Award-winning dramatization.

The much anticipated national tour of “War Horse” galloped into Motown last night as part of the Broadway in Detroit series. Using lean but compelling staging, and a sort of charming folk music narrative, we learn about Joey and Albert, the boy who loves and trains the thoroughbred hunter to pull a plow so that they can remain together on the small farm in Devon, England.

With the outbreak of WWI, Albert’s father sells Joey to the British army as a war horse. Although he is too young to enlist, Albert soon follows, embarking on a treacherous mission across war-torn France to find his beloved horse. Captured by the Germans, Joey is ultimately saved from becoming machine gun fodder because, unlike other cavalry horses, he is willing to be harnessed to an ambulance cart. Albert's farm training saves him.

There is much heartbreak before the final curtain. There must be heartbreak, because this is, after all, the story of WWI, with its bombs and barbed wire, mustard gas and mayhem. But it is also a story of courage and compassion – underscoring those fundamentally human attributes that are found in soldiers fighting on both sides of the war.

The music is charged with emotion, whether sung or orchestrated. And the seemingly hand-sketched, ever-changing backdrop is achingly lovely. This is stagecraft as it is meant to be. And the entire “War Horse” company seems to understand that they are part of something bigger. It is an ensemble production. If you see it once, you will want to see it again.

Of course, the true stars of “War Horse” are the life-size horses created by Handspring Puppet Company and operated by three actors performing as one. Magical and majestic, it is impossible to watch the “horses” and not think of them as life-and-blood sentient creatures. Even the temperamental barnyard goose is alive in a way that defies description.

In some ways, the animals’ personalities are more finely drawn than the people in the story, and it is the horses (their team of performers) who get and deserve top billing. We interviewed one member of the team of the team that plays Joey – our own Jessica Krueger from Canton – and she noted that the role is physically and mentally challenging. But the result is thrilling. And if, like this writer, you still hope every year that Santa will bring you a pony, this may be as close as it gets.

“War Horse” runs through January 5, 2014 at the Fisher Theatre, which is located at 3011 W. Grand Blvd., in mid-town Detroit. Performance times vary, and the theatre is dark on holidays. In general, shows run Tuesday through through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (note that December 31 has at 6:30 p.m. curtain). There are also shows on Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. , with special Thursday matinees on December 26 and January 2 at 1 p.m. There are no performances on December 24, 25, 30 and January 1.

Wednesday, December 18, has been declared Heroes’ Night and honors veterans and military families with special pre-show presentations by the Arsenal of Democracy Chapter of the Association of United States Army (AUSA) and the appearance of the Detroit Mounted Police. Discounted tickets are available to veterans and members of the military (use the code CAVET to purchase tickets). Additionally, a portion of ticket prices for certain performances will be donated to the AUSA if patrons enter the code HERO when they make their online purchase.

Thursday, December 19, is Kids’ Night, with pre-show activities that begin at 5:30 p.m.

Tickets are on sale at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, online, or at the Fisher Theatre box office. Prices vary, but as a special holiday gift to Detroiters, Broadway in Detroit just announced that all Balcony II tickets ($40) will be reduced to $25 for the run of this show. For group sales (10 or more) email groups@broadwayindetroit.com or call (313) 871-1132.

The Broadway In Detroit Series at the Fisher Theatre is sponsored by Chrysler. As part of this sponsorship, “Broadway In Detroit” meets “Imported from Detroit,” with the latest and hottest Chrysler vehicles on display at the theatre.

For more information, please visit the Broadway In Detroit website.

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