Puppetry is more than a gimmick on Broadway: Julie Taymor’s stylized jungle beasts brought a third dimension to Disney’s animated hit, The Lion King, while the furry monsters of Avenue Q added diversity to a very adult neighborhood reminiscent of Sesame Street.
Now, amazing life-sized — and incredibly life-like — horse puppets take center stage in War Horse, the epic Broadway hit playing at the Broward Center through May 19.
Based on a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for the National Theatre of Great Britain by Nick Stafford, War Horse is a moving story of love and loyalty that captured both the West End’s Olivier and Broadway’s Tony awards for best play.
At the center of the tale is a young boy living in rural Devon, Albert (Alex Morf), whose drunken father (Todd Cerveris) outbids his brother (Brian Keene) for a spirited pony at auction. The horse, part thoroughbred and part draft animal, immediately bonds with the boy.
When Britain enters World War I, the father sells the animal to the army for 100 pounds, ignoring the impassioned pleas of Joey and his mother (Megan Loomis). As Joey and his new master, an honorable lieutenant (Jason Loughlin), ride into the horrors of battle, Albert is devastated. At the young age of 16, Albert enlists and is shipped to France to join the fighting, but perseveres in the hope of recovering his beloved Joey.
The mechanical horses, crafted by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company of steel, leather and piano wire and operated by two to three puppeteers, are so lifelike in manner and movement, breathing, galloping and charging across the stage, their handlers quickly seem to blend into the production.
That artistry is supported by incredible lighting design by Paule Constable and Karen Spahn and sound effects by John Owens and Christopher Shutt make the horrors of war seem immediate and real, jolting and blinding the packed Broward Center audience. The scenes are set by hand drawn animated projections above the stage by Rae Smith, who also created the simple set pieces and historically accurate costumes.
But, despite the technical excellence of nearly aspect of the production, it’s the cast of 34, under the direction of Bigan Shelibani, that ultimately lend the play heart. Morf’s Albert is innocent and sincere and Loughlin delivers a strong performance as the honorable officer who gives Albert hope. Cerveris is unredeemable and Keene is the knowing foil, determined to best his brother.
In addition to incidental music by Adrian Sutton, John Milosich advances the story with folk songs weaved throughout and sung on stage with a sweet, clear Irish tenor.
If you see one show this year, rush to the Broward Center for War Horse. It is a masterful work of theater that will not be forgotten soon after the final curtain call.
(Can’t get a ticket? You’re in luck, the show has been programmed as part of Broadway Across America’s 2013-14 season at the Arsht Center in Miami. See it there.)
If you go
Broadway Across America
through May 19
Broward Center, Fort Lauderdale
Tickets start at $39.50
For show times and tickets, go to BrowardCenter.org