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.