If you have seen only the Steven Spielberg movie of “War Horse,” you haven’t seen “War Horse.”
More than 1 million playgoers worldwide have already discovered that the original stage version of “War Horse” has a quality that cannot be captured by all of the movie magic in world.
“We bring an inanimate object to life – and that is really magical,” said Gregory Manley, one of the three men who conjure Joey, the main character, into being.
Joey is a 7-foot-tall construction of canewood, mesh, leather, aluminum and aircraft cables, constructed by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. To the audience, however, Joey is simply a horse.
“It doesn’t take but a minute or two and the puppeteers actually disappear,” said Chad Jennings, who plays the auctioneer Chapman Carter in this national touring production.
At least, that’s what audience members say to Jennings – and he has experienced the same feeling himself.
“There are times when I am on stage, I will really believe it’s alive,” said Jennings, who grew up in Yakima before becoming a Broadway actor. “I am looking right in its eyeball. It’s really cool.”
For this and other reasons, “War Horse” is not the typical Best of Broadway touring show. Here are a few other things that make this show different:
• It’s not a musical. It’s a rare national touring play.
• It is aimed equally at adults and kids, which is why it will have three afternoon matinees during its eight-performance Spokane run.
• It is not a show that piggybacks on the success of an Oscar-nominated movie – quite the opposite. It was based on a 1982 British children’s book by Michael Morpurgo and was a smash hit in London long before Spielberg’s movie arrived. If anything, the strictly realistic 2011 movie created an image problem for the stage version.
As Ben Brantley said in his New York Times review of the Broadway production, “Nothing on screen could replicate the thrill of watching Joey take on substance and soul – out of disparate artificial parts – before our eyes.”
“A lot of people have encountered this story through the book and through the movie, but neither of those can do what a play can do: Create that communal experience between the actor and the live audience of taking this journey together,” said Danny Yoerges, one of Joey’s puppeteers.
The movie was nominated for a 2011 Oscar for Best Picture, but lost to “The Artist.” The Broadway play was nominated for the 2011 Tony for Best Play – and won it.
Joey is manipulated by a trio consisting of Yoerges, who stands next to Joey’s head, and Brian Burns and Manley, who stand inside the horse’s body. You can see them through the mesh – until the magic takes over and they disappear.
Life-sized puppet animals are nothing new on stage. “The Lion King” contains a virtual menagerie. However, “War Horse” takes a different approach. Joey is not a talking horse, nor is he anthropomorphized in any way. Joey is simply a farm horse.
In the original children’s book, Joey was the narrator. In the stage play, the story is told mostly from the perspective of Albert, a Devon farm boy who develops a special bond of friendship with Joey. When Joey is sold into the army during World War I, Albert lies about his age and enlists in the army. He goes to France in search of Joey.
The story has some scary moments – gunshots, warfare and cavalry charges – but is ultimately warm and uplifting. In fact, it has become a popular family Christmastime tradition in London, where it has played nonstop since 2007.
“It’s such a different experience,” Jennings said. “It’s not just a play, it’s not a musical, it’s not a puppet show. It’s all of those and more.”
“People get incredibly swept away,” Yoerges said. “We see tears in the audience every single night.”
“There are a whole lot of people who come and have no idea what to expect,” Jennings said. “And they are bowled over. … People will weep openly.”