War Horse – An Atlanta Theater Fans Review

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War Horse at Atlanta's Fox Theatre

Andrew Veenstra (Albert) with John Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, Jessica Krueger (Joey). Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

After seeing the first national tour of War Horse at the Fabulous Fox Theatre, there is no wonder why this British import swept its way to five Tony awards and a special Tony for The Handspring Puppet Company in 2011.

Based on the 1982 children’s novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the story of a profound friendship between Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra) and his horse, Joey. The horse in this play is not one of the mascot variety, or even reminiscent of Disney’s Lion King, where the animals were simply an artifice for the human performer. With Joey, they have created a horse that simultaneously gives the illusion of being alive, without ever trying to convince you that it is. With an uncanny specificity by the actors, puppeteers, and designers, it is rare to see such an attention to detail, even from the most precise of plays; and while the story might not rise to the level of the play’s theatricality, it provides enough material to touch and entertain the entire family.

Originally purchased by Albert’s drunken father Ted (Todd Cerveris) with their mortgage money, to prove a point to his wealthier brother Arthur (Briane Keane), Joey becomes a refuge for Albert when Ted’s drinking and gambling prove to be too much for his son. Likewise, as boy and horse grow together in the English countryside, the lessons and skills that Albert teaches Joey, prove invaluable to his survival as he is sold to the British military at the onset of World War I. Albert, determined to find Joey and bring him home, enlists in the army, despite being three years too young, and travels to France to find him.

First and foremost, Joey, who is controlled by three puppeteers as both a foal and a full-grown horse, is a masterpiece of theatrical creativity. Despite being made of wood, leather, and steel, often it is difficult to convince yourself that he is not made of flesh, blood, and bone. The puppeteers control every nuance of Joey’s being, including his ears, tail, and breathing. Seeing Joey, and his rival, Topthorn, in full gallop is one of the most impressive sights you will ever see on stage.

War Horse at Atlanta's Fox Theatre

Joey and the US National Tour of War Horse. Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Unfortunately, at times, the story of War Horse seems to only serve as an opportunity to show off the production’s equine creativity. While the plot spans nearly a decade across multiple countries, it never seems to be the most important aspect of the performance, and while there are sure to be many a tear shed by the most avid animal lovers in the audience, you cannot escape the fact that War Horse is simply a children’s tale told on a grand scale with exhilarating visuals.

Even though the story spans from his early adolescence to his late teens, Veenstra’s Albert never seems to age or grow as a character, which undermines the stark terrors of war that he encounters. Both Cerveris (who also plays Colonel Strauss in the second act) and Angela Reed, who plays Albert’s mother Rose, provide strong performances and give the play its most honest, simplistic emotions. Despite being considered a play, music has a central role in War Horse. Throughout the show, two Song Men (Nathan Koci- instrumental and John Milosich- vocal) set the scene with impressive, traditional-sounding English folk music. Additionally, the lighting design by Paule Constable, is so incredibly effective, that it is easy to get caught watching the intricacies of the lights when Joey is not on stage.

This epic production is easily one of the most impressive to come through the Fox recently, and it will excite and entertain all members of the family. War Horse plays at the Fabulous Fox Theatre through Sunday, September 30, 2012. For more information or to purchase tickets call 1-855-ATL-TIXX or visit their website.

– Matt Tamanini