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'War Horse' explodes onto Kansas City stage displaying unconditional love

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"War Horse" at the Music Hall in Kansas City

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World War I created the background for the drama, “War Horse,” a story about a young man, a horse, and their unconditional love for each other in a limited one-week run at Kansas City’s Music Hall theater in the Municipal Auditorium complex, from April 1-6.

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Broadway Across America produces the play on its national tour that to this point continues in its second year. The five-time Tony Award winner, “War Horse” generates large crowds as it traverses the country on mostly one-week runs at most stops, a spokesman said.

“War Horse” provides a unique theater experience with the use of huge horse puppets, mostly Joey and Topthorn, whose story gives recognition horses and highlights their importance in fighting the wars of yesteryear. In the play, a trio of puppeteers navigates each of the two large equines with such flair that audience members forget they are seeing puppets and believe they see horses on stage.

One puppeteer manages the front legs while another navigates the hind quarters. A third puppeteer maneuvers the head and neck of the horses. The puppet horses are large and at many times throughout the show carry other actors, just like a real horse would. The effect is overwhelming and a theatrical experience like none other.

A movie producer, Stephen Spielberg adapted the award-winning play into a big budget movie of the same name, but with real horses and no puppetry. And, even though, the movie version drew throngs of viewers, it does not match the theatrical experience of seeing the show live with the mastery of the puppeteers maneuvering their way through the piece.

“War Horse” opened its Kansas City run with a near sell-out crowd on hand to welcome the anticipated drama for its premiers in the metro. Only a handful of seats remained in the orchestra area on the far wings. A few other seats remained in the upper balcony, otherwise, an almost full auditorium.

The cast and puppets created an intricate story with the most minimal of sets and a wealth of props. And, of course, there were the puppets–birds, horses, and the crankiest goose one can imagine. Suffice it to say when the puppets were performing, all eyes focused on them. If the horses were smart, they’d extinguish the goose, because it created a lot of the laughs.

The horses, Joey, Topthorn, Joey as a foal, Coco, and Heine, each possessed a team of puppeteers to manage it. Most required three handlers. The horse puppets come from Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, according to John Milosich, one of the actors in the show.

As for the large cast of actors, several indicated that they had been with the road show since its inception. Three of the puppeteers for the horses confirmed that they were trained actors and selected for the show because of their acting background and their physical skills as well.

Standouts in the cast included: Michael Wyatt Cox, Albert Naracott; John Milosich, songman; Berndan Murray, Lieutenant Nicholls; Gene Gillette, Ted Naracott; and James Duncan, as the goose.

The cast, mostly men, contains many small parts and actors that appear in only brief scenes, so character development and stage presence is minimalized. Suffice it to say the entire cast pooled their efforts to create an emotion charged performance. The opening night performance was tight, fast moving, well paced and energized.

“War Horse” tell the story of unconditional love and bonding. The story deals with a young man’s love for his horse and the horse’s total trust to learn and do what is not expected of such a breed of horse. The story deals with other issues to help create the heart and irony. Alcoholism, broken promises, anger, resentment, misplaced loyalty, disappointment, inextinguishable hope, hatred, family problems, disappointment, poverty, and more create a fuller picture of the dynamics of the show. Still, the drama has many lighter moments and laughs (though brief) throughout the performance.

The show deserves all the awards and accolades bestowed. It is truly phenomenal. The puppetry is masterful and spellbinding. The costumes, though mostly drab, capture the WWI era. The spirit of the show is hope even during the worst of situations. The inspirational drama will both break hearts and overfill them with joy.

The show comes with the highest recommendations. The show is probably not suitable for the youngest of children because it is very dramatic in spots. Older children would gain a fuller understanding of the hardships of war by seeing this production.

The show continues through April 6 at The Music Hall in Kansas City’s, Municipal Auditorium.

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