The problem with far too many Broadway shows is that they try to compete with the movies, with realistic scenery and literal-minded special effects.
And then there is “War Horse,” the miraculous collaboration between the National Theatre of Great Britain and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, drawing on the audience’s imagination as too few productions do.
Of course these days, any non-musical that goes out on a national tour — without box office stars, no less — is beating the odds. Yet here is “War Horse,” and its huge cast of more than two dozen, grazing at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Arts until May 19. For those who save up to see only the truly special shows, this is the one to splurge on.
(And for those who feel that Fort Lauderdale is too far to go for great theater, opportunity will be knocking twice in this case. This same “War Horse” tour is scheduled to play West Palm Beach’s Kravis Center next season, Feb. 12-16, 2014.)
The tale is based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo about a farm boy and his horse, set against the brutality of World War I. Young Albert Narracott enlists to be shipped off to France, where he hopes to locate and be reunited with his beloved half-thoroughbred, Joey. The story is a heart-tugger, but it is not the material itself, it is the way it is told that makes “War Horse” so compelling on stage.
You see, Joey — and a handful of other horses — are vividly brought to life as full-scale puppets, made of an artful wood and metal skeleton and a transparent mesh skin. Inside each puppet, hidden in plain sight, are two puppeteers and a third one is outside, leading the horse as if on a leash.
As interesting as it is to watch the puppeteers manipulate the animals, the illusion is soon complete as the horses come alive, taking on expression, emotion and spirit. If horses do not happen to be your thing, you could be just as enthralled by a supporting character, a goose puppet-push-toy, the show’s designated comic relief that earns laughs with his every appearance.
While “War Horse” is chiefly a love story — yup, between young man and his horse — it is also an anti-war saga. The chaos and brutality of war are exquisitely conveyed by the scenic design of Rae Smith, dominated by a slash of skylight torn from the backdrop through which cinematic drawings scroll by — both horizontally and vertically. This simple, elegant animation depicts the Narracott’s Devon farm, several war-ravaged towns in France and the explosive barrages of man’s most advanced weaponry of the time.
Amid the wartime violence, however, “War Horse” manages to interweave some rays of humanity. Most notably, a sequence where a French and German soldier declare a momentary truce when Joey is ensnared in barbed wire in no man’s land and they go out together to free him.
As you are probably aware, Steven Spielberg made a film version of Morpurgo’s story, but it has little of the impact that this stylized stage show does. Much of that is inherent in Handspring’s contribution, but all of the elements are combined so expertly by original directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris (re-staged for this tour by Bijan Sheibani).
If there is a quibble, it is the lack of expansive sweep that the production had on Lincoln Center‘s thrust stage, but what is rendered with care at the Broward Center is still awe-inspiring, memorable theater.
Where: Broward Center, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: Through Sunday
Tickets: $39.50-$79.50. Call: 954-462-0222.
The verdict: An imaginative, visually stunning rendering of a World War I saga, artfully populated with life-sized puppets and a huge human cast.