Pure awestruck inspiration is often hard to come by these days upon the stage, but a radiant beam of stunning and imaginative heart is blasting its way onto the stages of Baltimore as Broadway Across America— CareFirst Hippodrome Broadway Series presents the Tony Award winning Best Play, War Horse. A remarkable piece of theatrical genius based on the beloved novel by Michael Morpurgo, this sensational production is filled to the brim with the inspired struggle of friendship born between a young boy and his horse in the face of the atrocities of war.
Directed by Bijan Sheibani (based on the original Tony Award-Winning Direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), this breathtaking performance will capture your heart and inspire a conflagration of passion to burn wildly for the story of Albert and his horse, Joey. Produced in association with Handspring Puppet Company, this enchanting production will tug at your heartstrings and move you in ways that epic dramatic theatre is meant to move its audience.
It seems unfathomable, life-life full size horses on a Broadway-size stage, but it’s the overall simplistic nature of the remaining design elements in the production that allow this transformation of imaginative magic to occur. Set and Costume Designer Rae Smith, working with 59 Productions and their projection designs, create an intricate world in the village of Devon England at the brink of the First World War Rather than complicate the set with elaborate fixtures, Smith utilizes members of the company to hold fence posts in place created penned in areas and delineative markings on the farm and in the main village area. It’s the projections, however, that are truly mesmerizing. Ever changing, perpetually in motion, they tell the story as much as the characters on the stage and the horses around them. Stunning black and white and brown scale images often flood the background, showing location as well as time. And moments of battlefield action are highlighted with these projections, often creating explosions and other travesties of war right before the audience’s eyes.
A great deal of the emotional soul of this performance comes from the ethereal music that underscores nearly every scene. Created by Musician Adrian Sutton, these evocative melodies draw tension into serious moments, sprinkle joy into jovial moments, and bring a tear to the eye in their sheer aural beauty. Accompanying the musical overlay of the production are songs, created by John Tams, sung by an almost ghost-like character, recognized only as Song Man (at this performance John Milosich). With a superbly clear voice, Milosich weaves a haunting series of melodies into the story; truly stunning to behold.
The story is beyond memorable and the striking visual glory of the production is unbelievable. Handspring Puppet Company, guided by Movement Director and Horse Choreographer Toby Sedgwick, brings an amazing feat to the stage with these enormous puppets. It becomes an exceptional show; these horse puppets so life-like and fully animated that it only takes a moment to become lost in their grandeur and believe that you are seeing real horses. Sedgwick devises such realistic movements for these puppets and the performers that work with them that the story breaks your heart when tragedy befalls them. Emotions run high because you forget you are watching inanimate objects posing as animals, and hearts bleed with passion for these enormous equine majesties.
Human characters build this story to its awe-inspiring heights, their raw reality and genuine emotions infused into every scene is what keeps you focused from the moment the production starts until it closes. From the hard knocks of Devon where the accents are thick but the skin on the villagers is thicker, to the battlefields of France where the Germans and the English can barely speak a word between them; it is the people’s story as much as the horses. The Narracott family is the central focus, with Rose (Maria Elena Ramirez) and Ted (Gene Gillettte) raising their young son Albert. Ramirez is a stern woman with a kind heart that always sees the bigger picture. Juxtaposing this dual personality up against the drunken and thickheaded character played by Gillette and already the stakes of the production begin to simmer.
Militant soldiers bark orders throughout, Sergeant Thunder (Andrew Long) being the most boisterous of the bunch. Long brings a smattering of much needed comic relief to this intensely emotional drama at the top of Act II, finding subtle ways to eke out laughter without appearing to create moments of comedy. Private Taylor (Andy Truschinski) has a similar humorous value in the production; creating tender moments between him and Albert when they’re struggling alone in the trenches.
Captain Friedrich Muller (Andrew May) will turn your heart over at least once. It is May’s commanding presence and impressive German accent that keeps you interested in his character. His compassionate pleas for the horses as well as his unbridled love for his family shining through the tough rigidity of his German training is what unearths the humanity in his character.
Albert Narracott (Michael Wyatt Cox) is the young boy that braves the perils of war in search of his horse, Joey (manned at this performance by James Duncan, Adam Cunningham, and Aaron Haskell). From the moment Cox encounters Joey as a foal (manned by Mairi Babb, Catherine Gowl, and Nick Lamedica) their bond is intense and sure. Watching the naïve friendship blossom between them with simple gestures and moments of pause is a breathtaking splendor. The burgeoning personalities of both boy and horse grow right in front of your eyes; a wonder to behold as it happens. Cox’s emotional depth in this character knows no limitations and he gives a stellar performance, taking the audience on every step of his journey.
Duncan, Cunningham, and Haskell are a trio of perfection when it comes to making Joey the epitome of equine majesty. This graceful bold creature is so lifelike in his movements, from the gentle breathing and flips of his tail, to the way he interacts with the humans it is nothing short of phenomenal to observe. The trio work in flawless tandem to create fluid seamless movements that keep Joey lively and spirited. Even when Joey encounters Topthorn, (manned at this performance by Danny Yoerges, Patrick Osteen, and Dayna Tietzen) an equally majestic and enormous beast, his grace is only preceded by his realistic responses.
The trio commanding Topthorn are equally skilled and talented when it comes to making this realistic horse a captivating character. Though Topthorn and Joey have vastly different personalities; watching them side by side is stunning. A visual sensation not to be missed; these horses of war will evoke deep emotional responses as they gallop their way across your hearts. Be sure to see this incredible drama; fast on its way to becoming an exceptional theatrical classic.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.
War Horse plays through February 9, 2014 at The Hippodrome Theatre—12 North Eutaw Street in downtown Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available for purchase by calling the box office at (410) 547-7328 or by purchasing them online.
Click here to view a behind-the-scenes look at War Horse.