You've probably heard the old adage about actors avoiding working with children or animals, lest they be overshadowed by cuteness or dragged down in their unpredictability. But what about puppets? And further, what about puppets of animals?
Sure, the human element of the Broadway in Salt Lake City production of War Horse is plenty impressive. There is some fine acting, gorgeous singing, and intricate stage choreography among a huge cast to move the action-packed story along. But there is no denying the fact that the amazing puppets, and the lead "horse" Joey, dominate the proceedings and absorb the audiences's attention throughout.
That is not a bad thing. The Broadway hit, based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel and later adapted into a feature film by Steven Spielberg, is a riveting tale, with a winning story that is only enhanced by the visual feast on stage.
It's a love story of sorts, between Joey and his human caretaker Albert, who raises him from a foal into a spirited steed who ends up on the front lines of World War I. Over the course of War Horse, the audience sees the beginning of their affair, the "breakup" at the hands of Albert's father, and their ultimate reunion, and it all works. As someone who never read the book or saw the movie, I was hooked by the story quickly.
The amazing visuals on stage, though, are what makes War Horse a remarkable piece of live theater. The intricate puppets designed by Handspring Puppet Company and controlled by a small troupe of puppeteers on stage are the calling card of the show, for sure. The movements of the horses are incredibly lifelike and fluid, and the presence of the human puppeteers alongside them is never a distraction.
But the puppetry is just part of the excellent production's visual appeal. The animated line drawings on a screen suspended above the stage add incredible detail to the proceedings below in setting the scenes and pushing the story forward. Smaller puppets of birds in the sky and geese on Albert's farm add to the realism--which is all the more impressive given that the stage is relatively bare-bones in terms of props and sets. The horses and the humans carry this tale. And it's a tale well worth seeing.
War Horse plays at Capitol Theatre through April 27. Visit the Broadway in Salt Lake City website for showtimes, tickets and more information. (Photo courtesy Broadway in Salt Lake City)