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.

Popular on Variety

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.

More Legit

  • Adam Schlesinger

    Tom Hanks, Rachel Bloom, Stephen Colbert, Stephen King Pay Tribute to Adam Schlesinger

    Whether it was the snarky but sincere pop of Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, the ‘60s retro of Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do!” or the Broadway fare of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Adam Schlesinger’s music reached far beyond his public profile. The master songwriter passed away Wednesday morning at the age of 52 from complications related [...]

  • Amy Adams Jennifer Garner

    Jennifer Garner, Amy Adams on 'Save With Stories,' Helping Children During Coronavirus Quarantine

    Jennifer Garner and Amy Adams are opening their contact lists for their new endeavor to help children during the coronavirus pandemic. Not long after the U.S. came to a screeching halt because of COVID-19, the two superstars launched “SaveWithStories,” an Instagram account that features celebrities and other notable figures reading children’s books. The line-up already [...]

  • Terrence McNally Remembered Obit

    Three of Terrence McNally's Collaborators Remember His Life and Legacy

    Terrence McNally, a towering force in modern American theater who died on March 24 of complications from the coronavirus, had a career that spanned five decades. He wrote farces, dramas and books for musicals. He also had a talent for dramatizing gay lives, middle-aged romances and fading opera divas in works like “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Frankie and [...]

  • Fringe

    Edinburgh Festivals Called Off Due to Coronavirus Concerns

    The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the U.K.’s largest arts festival and the launchpad for countless comedy and stage acts, will be shelved this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Fringe is among five Edinburgh festivals that have been canceled in light of COVID-19 concerns. This group also includes the Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh International Book [...]

  • Sanctuary City Martyna Majok

    Listen: How Off Broadway Is Coping With Shutdowns From Coronavirus

    It’s not just Broadway that’s been affected by New York City’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Off Broadway productions went dark too, cutting short the already limited runs of plays and musicals at venues all over the city. Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below: One of those plays is “Sanctuary City,” the latest by Pulitzer [...]

  • U.K. Freelancers

    U.K. Government Faces Pressure From Industry on Economic Measures for Freelancers

    The U.K. government is facing increasing pressure from the creative industries after it emerged that economic measures set out for the self-employed last week by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak have yawning gaps in them. The measures may have come as a welcome move for many creative industries workers, but not all are eligible [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content