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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
War Horse

"Hello, Joey. What a dance you've led me!" — Albert
If there's anyone who hasn't seen the Stephen Spielberg film of WarHorse or the original productions in London or New York, run do not walk to the Ahmanson Theatre! Even if you have seen it somewhere else, what the Handspring Puppet Company does in this National Theatre of Great Britain production is unique enough to see more than once.

Reminiscent of the Japanese puppetry in which puppeteers are fully present as they move these towering creations about the stage, the way in which the horses toss their heads, paw, do all the things real horses do soon renders the puppeteers invisible to all intents and purposes. The gorgeous chestnut mane of Joey, the title character, and the jet black coloring ot his pal Topthorn, differentiate them from Coco and Heine, the washed-out grey animals who are like walking ghosts of the fate that befell many unfortunate animals recruited in World War I.

The foal Joey opens the play. He sprouts dramatically to full-size glory as Joey blossoms before our eyes.

Based on Micharl Morpurgos's 1982 novel and adapted by Nick Stafford, the book excited little interest and few readers for nearly 25 years until one of the directors for National Theatre of Great Britain came across it. A children's horse story thus made the transition to mainstream adult entertainment, reminiscent of the wildly popular My Friend Flicka many years ago.

Two Song Men (Nathan Koci, instrumental, John Milosich, vocal) lend an endearing quality. They also, added to the puppet horses, contribute to the piece's mythic tone.

In keeping with the old theatre adage that 2 actors and a passion on a blank stage are all that's needed, this production designed by Rae Smith uses an irregular small white screen against which war scenes unspool, accompanied by Adrian Sutton's booming stirring martial music. This leaves the stage free for horses.

The story has all the simplicity of good children's tales. Joey, the title horse, becomes the beloved property of Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra) until his father Ted (Todd Cerveris) sells him to the Army. All Albert has to show for his passion is a book of drawings of himself and Joey, found among Lt. Nicholl's (Jason Loughlin) effects. Heartbroken, he runs away to France to join the Arm to search for his pet.

The production does a spine-chilling job on the war scenes between the expressive movements of the horses — particularly the ears, the crushing music, the flaring lighting and the morbid pictures. The set is kept dark with action spotlighted by Paule Constable. It's much more effective than the realistically detailed movie. There is one grisly scene late in the play when Joey becomes entangled in barbed wire.

Heading the cast is Andrew Veenstra who brings a fierce determined farm boy quality to Albert. Angela Reed as Rose, his mother, lets us see see where he gets it from. Todd Cerveris is Ted the father, an angry lump of a man. We also meetMuller (Michael Stewart Allen), a German officer who hates war; and Emilie (Lavita Shaurice), an exuberant girl who loves Joey.

Co-directors are Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris with sensational horse choreography by Director of Movement Toby Sedgwick. The unpretentious story is given a dynamic production, thanks to Handspring Puppet Company and the spectacular work done by the horse handlers. They are too many to list but their work will go down in theatre history.

For Curtainup's review of the New York and London productions with images of the fabulous puppet horses go here.

Title: War Horse
Based on MJjichael Morpurgo's novel, adapted by Nick Stafford
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Principal Cast, Horses: Joey as a foal (Laurabeth Breya), Joey (Brian Robert Burns), Topthorn (Danny Beiruti), Coco (Danny Bieruti), Heine (Grayson DeJesus). People: Lt. Nicholls (Jason Loughlin), Albert (Amdrew Veenstra), Ted (Todd Cerveris), Rose (Angela Reed),Cpt.Muller (Andrew May), Emilie (Lavita Shaurice).
Sets: Rae Smith
Puppet Design: Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones
Originl Lighting: Paule Constable
Director of Movement & Horse Choreography: Toby Sedgwick
Music: Adrian Sutton
When: June 14-July 29, 2012
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Reservations: (213) 972-7231.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on June 29.
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