DES MOINES — “War Horse” is even more thrilling on stage than on screen.
The 2011 Tony Award-winning Best Play that inspired the blockbuster movie is a magnificent beast of beauty, power and grace. It opened to gasps, cheers and three curtain calls Tuesday (12/11/12) at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, and continues there through Dec. 16.
The show is even more special for Eastern Iowans, since Mount Vernon native Alex Morf, 32, who was wonderful in a supporting role Tuesday, will step into the lead role for all matinee and evening shows Saturday and Sunday.
While we’re used to seeing Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future this time of year, this play, wrapped in the harrowing trappings of war, has an overarching spirit of goodness, honor and kindness. It’s easily a two-tissue experience as we watch a young English boy fall completely in love with his new foal, Joey, a gift his father gave with much sacrifice.
Boy and horse grow together, developing a bond that transcends time, space and trauma when the strapping horse is sold to the British cavalry at the onset of World War I. Joey is shipped to France to serve as an officer’s steed, but through the bombings and strife, is hurtled into impossible peril pulling field guns, dodging tanks, struggling through barbed wire and staring down the barrel of a gun when it seems he can’t go on.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know how that all plays out. That doesn’t lessen the impact of this marvelous piece of theater at its best. It’s an amalgam of impeccable acting, breathtaking battle choreography, multimedia scenery, driving music and puppetry that blazes new trails.
Every actor in the huge ensemble is solid and crucial to the success of the show, but it’s the horses and auxiliary animals that captivate your attention. The life-size beasts are larger than life in the way they spring into action. Each of the half-dozen or so horses requires three people at the head, heart and hind, bringing such subtly and elegance to their movements and sound effects that the animals seem like breathing flesh and blood, instead of metal framework and transparent cloth.
The minute we see baby Joey onstage, we understand why Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa received a special Tony award for their work. And when the actors mount the adult horses to ride into battle or frolic across the stage, the moments are truly monumental achievements.
All of the horse operators are dressed in the early 1900s garb of young men, which is another stroke of genius for the overall stage picture. We know they are there, but they are instantly at one with the animals — including an especially hissy goose — so when the horses charge into battle, we see “real” horses rearing on their hind legs. And we weep at their demise.
Music undulates throughout the show, sometimes through the Song Man, a lilting Celtic narrator and his accordion accompanist, other times through a brass band (where Morf plays a mean, crisp trombone) and several times, from the entire cast. The only permanent scenery is a giant swath of torn paper suspended above the stage, where pencil-sketch scenery is projected in animated form. Stark lighting and blinding bomb blasts engulf the stage and audience in the most intense sensory assault at the height of battle.
This is a play that will never grow old, shedding light on a horrible war eclipsed by ensuing 20th century violence. Above all, it is a story of a love and devotion that knows no cost.
- What: “War Horse”
- Where: Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, 221 Walnut St.
- When: Through Dec. 16; 7:30 p.m. through Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
- Tickets: $45 to $90 at the Civic Center Box Office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-(800) 745-3000 or CivicCenter.org
- Extra: Alex Morf and musical friends from the show will play a bluegrass concert to benefit the Mount Vernon High School theater program, 8 p.m. Dec. 17, Cornell College theater complex