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War Horse

The theatricality and emotional tug of "War Horse" emerge intact in the remarkably opulent national tour kicking off at the Ahmanson.

Albert Narracott - Andrew Veenstra
Capt. Friedrich Muller - Andrew May
Capt. Charles Stewart - Grayson DeJesus

The theatricality and emotional tug of “War Horse” emerge intact in the remarkably opulent national tour kicking off at the Ahmanson. In the WWI epic’s remounting from thrust to a more road-friendly proscenium, the vivid acting style fostered by original helmers Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris has gone downright bombastic under Bijan Sheibani. But beyond the advantages afforded the text by a pageant-style presentation, the sets, music, sound, lighting and puppetry continue to collaborate in a total theater experience sure to dazzle, as they used to say, children from 8 to 80.

Set within a picture-frame stage, Michael Morpurgo’s yarn takes on the look and rhythm of a living museum diorama, not inappropriate to a kidlit-classic panorama of long-ago loyalty and sacrifice.

As young Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra) bonds with, loses and pursues beloved thoroughbred Joey through the trenches of the Somme, a glowing white muslin gash hangs overhead to announce locations via Rae Smith’s exquisite, animated pen-and-ink drawings, just as it does in the play’s award-winning, continuing West End and Gotham engagements.

But now the famous diagonally staged setpieces of Nick Stafford’s adaptation — the plowing competition; the cavalry charge; colt Joey’s stunning transformation to stallion — flow much more horizontally across our field of vision, like a procession or historical cavalcade. The play thereby takes on the air of an otherworldly fairy tale, as opposed to the flesh-and-blood, here-and-now experience of the original production.

Interestingly, by offering the simplistic plot essentially as a fable, this touring version may be easier for skeptical grownups to swallow, even those who acknowledge the drama as its year’s “best production” but still bristle at its “best play” awards.

The performances unfortunately lack delicacy and shading, most of the roles conveyed through coarsely bellowed dialogue. Feuding brothers Arthur (Brian Keane) and Ted (Todd Cerveris) shout indistinguishably; Ted’s wife, Rose (Angela Reed), well placed to interject quiet good sense, gets caught up in the shrieking.

A particular casualty of war is Veenstra, whose strapping hunkiness could hardly be less believable for a lad of 16. His sobbing, choked vocal bleat would serve him better in moments of highest emotion if he weren’t overusing it throughout.

Welcome exceptions in their understatement include Andrew May as a Hun officer owing deeper allegiance to his captured steeds than to his Kaiser; Lavita Shaurice as a near-shellshocked French gamine; and John Milosich as the dignified “Song Man” delivering balladeering commentary on harrowing events with discretion and gravity.

The subtlest acting, of course, comes from the thesps trained by Handspring Puppet Company to bring out the equine essence lurking within bamboo and gauze. Patently fake, even more so while spending so much more time downstage, the 7-foot-tall constructions nevertheless become realer than real as they’re made to shuffle, sway and breathe.

It’s no mystery why audiences can cry buckets over these horsey hulls while sitting unmoved at the genuine article in last year’s pic version. Whenever the trio animating Joey or rival Topthorn flicks a tail, twists an ear or stamps a hoof — mere photorealistic movement onscreen — the action conjures up “horseness” through its thoughtful artistry. Moment by moment, the manipulators reveal and transfigure each animal’s soul, to which our species is apparently hardwired to respond. Certainly we can’t take our eyes off the creatures for a second.

No less irresistible is the technical accomplishment in recreating a prewar country idyll and the horrors of the Western front. As Paule Constable and associate Karen Spahn brilliantly sculpt smoke and light into unforgettable images of carnage and transcendence, Christopher Shutt’s original sound-effects plot (adapted here by John Owens) and Adrian Scott’s elegant underscoring battle thrillingly for aural dominance.

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War Horse

Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles; 1,614 seats; $150 top

Production: A Bob Boyett, National Theater of Great Britain under the direction of Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, Ostar Prods., Ken Gentry, Chris Harper, Tim Levy, Broadway Across America, Roger Berlind, Roy Furman, Richard Willis, Daryl Roth, Debbie Bisno, Jane Bergere, Remmel T. Dickinson, Dede Harris, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, Thomas L. Miller, Carl Moellenberg, Raise the Roof, Shorenstein-Hays Nederlander Theater, Douglas C. Smith presentation of the National Theater of Great Britain production, in association with Handspring Puppet Company, of a play in two acts by Nick Stafford, adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo. Original co-direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris; tour directed by Bijan Sheibani.

Creative: Sets, costumes and drawings, Rae Smith; original lighting, Paule Constable; additional lighting and adaptation, Karen Spahn; puppet design, fabrication and direction, Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company; director of movement & horse choreography, Toby Sedgwick; music, Adrian Sutton; songmaker, John Tams; sound, Christopher Shutt; additional sound and adaptation, John Owens; music director, Greg Pliska; production stage manager, Eric Insko. Opened, reviewed June 29, 2012. Runs through July 29. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: Albert Narracott - Andrew Veenstra
Capt. Friedrich Muller - Andrew May
Capt. Charles Stewart - Grayson DeJesusWith: Michael Stewart Allen, Danny Beiruti, Brooks Brantly, Laurabeth Breya, Brian Robert Burns, Jason Alan Carvell, Todd Cerveris, Michael Wyatt Cox, Catherine Gowl, Aaron Haskell, Mike Heslin, Jon Hoche, Mat Hostetler, Chad Jennings, Brian Keane, Nathan Koci, Jessica Krueger, Nick LaMedica, Rob Laqui, Megan Loomis, Jason Loughlin, Christopher Mai, Gregory Manley, John Milosich, Alex Morf, Patrick Osteen, Angela Reed, Jon Riddleberger, Lavita Shaurice, Derek Stratton, Danny Yoerges.

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