Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"War Horse"

Photo Credit:  Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Based on a novel by:  Michael Morpurgo.

Adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford.

VenueDenver Center for the Performing Arts, Temple Hoyne Buell Theater, 1400 Curtis Street, Denver, CO.

Date of Performance:  Tuesday, January 8, 2013 (opening night)

Running Time:  2 hours 45 minutes (includes 20 minute intermission and 12 minute stoppage in the second act).

Opening nights are risky; if something can go wrong, there’s a pretty good chance it will happen at the first performance.  War Horse opened at the Buell on Tuesday, January 8, and it was as memorable for a serious glitch as it was for its dramatic aspirations.

War Horse hit Denver shortly after winning five Tony awards in 2011.  It was a highly anticipated theater event; substantial print and TV press coverage preceded the opening performance.  The show features lifelike puppets to portray the title character.  

To be clear, those puppets do NOT disappoint.  The illusion is so good that one easily forgets that there is no horse on the stage.  The movements, the mannerisms, and frankly, the personality of the horse Joey are dead ringers for a real horse.  It’s no wonder that, in addition to the five Tony awards for the play, the Handspring Puppet Company also won a Special Tony Award in 2011 for War Horse.

Joey, like many of the human characters in War Horse, is “drafted” into World War I, to serve in the British cavalry.  That is a high-risk assignment for Joey; of the 1,000,000 horses that actually went to war, only 62,000 returned.  Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra), who raised Joey from a foal, lies about his age to enlist in the British cavalry so he can find Joey and bring him home.  Albert’s devotion to his horse is limitless, as is the carnage he sees on the battlefield.

I really wanted to like, no, love, this play.  Alas, it fell short of the high expectations created by the Tony buzz and the media hype.  Lowlights include:

·      The story is fairly predictable, although the ending is unlikely and frustrating. 

·      Using a horse to show how cruel war can be tends to diminish the cruelty visited upon the human beings whose lives are changed or randomly destroyed. 

·      The horses are not the only puppets in War Horse.  They are, however, the only necessary puppets in the performance.  The other puppets distract.  If you haven’t seen War Horse, picture sparrows on a pole, flitting about the stage followed by a human pole handler.  It just does not work.

While the show fell short of expectations by intermission, the coup de grace was administered near the end of the second act.  In the middle of the battlefield, something went awry backstage, taking down all the sound and light cues.  The house lights came up, the actors left the stage, and the show stopped.   The public address announcer apologized to the audience for the “technical problem backstage.”  It took about 12 minutes to restart the performance.

The effect was that of letting the air out of a balloon.  The audience just sat there, waiting for further instructions. 

Shows that rely on high tech effects walk a tight rope.  If it all works, it’s magic.  However, if there is a small (or in this case, a large) glitch, the effect is calamitous.  It’s not magic.  The illusion is gone.  We think we are participating in an event, but when the magic is gone, we remember that we are watching a performance.  It’s the difference between experiencing an event and observing an event.  That difference is profound.

These things happen.  Computers crash, microphones fail, lights burn out…relying on these tools requires taking the risk that they will perform flawlessly.  They usually do, but not always, and not on opening night for War Horse

My experience with Broadway productions, both in New York and on tour, is that they are “state of the art.”  They employ the most talented performers, the best technicians, the most creative producers, directors, and technicians in the industry.  The tickets are expensive (up to $125 for War Horse) because the performances are the best in the world.  War Horse is the first such production where I felt the performance did not justify the ticket price.

I realize that it is unlikely War Horse will suffer another show stopping “technical problem” on this tour.  Unfortunately, I can only review the performance I saw, and that performance fell short of my high expectations.


This show runs until January 20, 2013.  This show is suitable for children.  However, the subject is war, and some scenes may be too intense for some children.  Parental discretion advised.

Director for US Tour:  Bijan Sheibani

Cast (main characters):

Arthur Narracott:  Brian Keane

Billy Narracott:  Michael Wyatt Cox

Albert Narracott:  Andrew Veenstra

Emilie:  Lavita Shaurice

Rose Narracott:  Angela Reed

Private David Taylor:  Alex Morf

Cast (horses):

Joey as a foal:  Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl, Nick Lamedica

Joey:  Danny Yoerges, Brian Robert Burns, Gregory Manley

Topthorn:  Jon Hoche, Danny Beiruti, Aaron Haskell

Coco:  Patrick Osteen, Jessica Krueger

Heine:  Grayson DeJesus, Jason Loughlin


  1. Amen! War Horse is of course interesting in its puppetry, liked the goose alot. Is too long even without the glitch, in my opinion.

  2. I agree....too long and the goose was amusing. I just couldn't deal with the sparrows on a stick. They add nothing to the story, and distract the audience from the what's going on with the characters.

    Whatever caused the second act to crash is unacceptable to me. We paid for, and deserved, better.