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Artistry, engineering soar above all in Marcus Center Broadway show 'War Horse'

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

January 9, 2014

 
WAUKESHA - The beautiful children’s novel “War Horse,” written by Michael Marpurgo, inspired the stage version of the story in 2007 and the Steven Spielberg film in 2011. But it is not the story nor the music, though both are moving and worthy, that make this present showing at the Marcus Center in Milwaukee so remarkable. It is the incredible artistry and engineering expertise of bringing mechanical horses to life on stage that puts this show into a class by itself.  What a spectacle!  

Whoever created these models and implemented their actions via human puppeteers understood horses and every nuance of their sounds and movements. These equestrian creations seem so real that it’s difficult to find the words that would match the experience of watching them.

The special effects of the war scenes set in England and France in World War I also also stunning. They were able to convey the changes in the battle gear of warfare, and that the horse was becoming passˇ as a transport for soldiers dead and alive. They also show the horror of war, its chaos and randomness.  

The story centers around a teenage boy named Albert and his horse Joey, whom he trained and loved. When his father sold the son’s horse to the army for 100 pounds, Albert was devastated, but he was too young to join the forces, so he had to let him go. The story follows the journey of Joey and another horse,Topthorn, two strong brave stallions, and also the fate of Albert. Because the horses seemed so real, we were just as concerned about their fate as we were about the fate of any other character.   

There is a song man, played by John Milosich, who ties events together. He has a lovely voice, but it is sometimes hard to understand the lyrics. The orchestra provides soaring music as backdrop, and the whole cast enters into patriotic songs occasionally to set the mood and the time frame.  

The 13 puppeteers that are involved in operating four horses are all skilled, but special mention must be made of James Duncan, Adam Cunningham and Aaron Haskell, who manipulated the adult Joey, who had the most time on stage.  

Michael Wyatt Cox is a very memorable Albert. None of the other characters are well developed. This was really a story of two characters - Albert and Joey. They are the ones whom we loved and cared about.  

Since this is such a technical tour de force, special mention must be made of the puppet design and direction by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones from Handspring Puppet Company, director of movement and horse choreography by Toby Sedgwick, animation and projection design by 59 Productions, and lighting and sound design by Paule Constable and Christopher Shutte, respectively.

 

One can see why this play won five Tony Awards in 2011. It is as breathtaking as it is heartwarming, an electrifying experience. It is well directed by Bijan Steibani.  

It is worth bearing the cold to see this one. We are lucky to be part of a touring company that brings us such splendid Broadway productions.  

“War Horse” runs through Sunday at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. tonight, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 414-273-7206 or visit www.WarHorseOnStage.com.