There were moments of such intensity during the opening night of Broadway Across America's stage production of War Horse at Kansas City's Music Hall that it felt to this reviewer as if all theatergoers' hearts were beating in unison, as if the audience was holding its collective breath. (The old cliché "you could hear a pin drop" certainly applied.) Theater at its finest is supposed to make you feel deep emotions, and I can't remember a play that made me care as deeply for the characters as this one did.
This was no mean feat, since the character I cared about most was made of bamboo ribbing covered with diaphanous fabric, whose features (limbs, tail, mane and head) were manipulated by three very talented and sensitive human actors (Jon Hoche, Brian Robert Burns, and Jessica Krueger). Joey, the horse, is actually one of the extraordinary creations that steals the show, a life-sized puppet designed by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Michael Murporgo, who wrote the children's book upon which the play is based, said, after seeing the National Theatre version of War Horse, "...you forget he is a puppet in which the audience invests so much empathy and pity and hope that it is almost too much to bear. I couldn't have written a better anthem for peace."
At its heart, War Horse is a play with a powerful anti-war message, but it is much more than that. Although it is set in a very particular time and place (it begins in Devon, England just before World War I breaks out), its themes are so universal that German audiences (watching a German-language version in a production in Berlin) respond with the same laughter and tears in all the same places that British and American audiences do.
Prepare to be amazed by the almost-dizzying technical effects (guns that fire with startling energy, nearly rocking the auditorium and rattling your bones; lights that seem to glare at point-blank range in your face; and animated projections dancing across a broad white banner set high across the proscenium) that transport you from the English countryside to the battlegrounds of World War I in France. You won't even notice the suspension of disbelief that you almost immediately undergo as Joey (undeniably the star of the production) electrifies the stage with his transformation from spindly, prancing colt (played by Mairi Babb, Catherine Gowl, and Nick Lamedica) to a living, breathing, headstrong horse with a heart so big that it fills up the entire theater. And yes, you'll care about that heart enough to cry over all the ways it is betrayed and twisted by the ugliness of human cruelty and war.
The puppets in this production definitely upstage the human actors, but there are some amazing talents onstage. The sentimentality of the show (a boy's and a horse's love for one another could not possibly be a more treacly theme) is never overbearing, thanks to the masterful performance of Michael Wyatt Cox as Albert Narracott, who demonstrates as much passion and spirit throughout the drama as his magnificent chestnut steed.
Another standout performance is turned in by Andrew May as Captain Friedrich Muller, a German officer and staunch animal lover who immediately bonds with Joey and his fellow Cavalry companion, Topthorn, when both horses fall into the hands of the German army. David Hurwitz, as Billy Narracott, also shines in his role as Albert's cousin, who is a pugnacious bully back home in peaceful England, but becomes wracked by nerves during wartime battles.
Simple choral folk songs accompanied by accordion music tie all the action together, a fitting antidote to the never-ending machinery of war that parades past us onstage.
"Joey and Albert, together forever," Albert croons in his horse's ear at the beginning of their relationship. Like his love for his horse, the imagery and emotions of this production will stay with you forever.
The Fine Print
You can catch War Horse through Sunday, April 6, 2014 at the Music Hall in Kansas City. For more information, call 800-745-3000 or go to TheaterLeague.com.