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Compelling WARHORSE grasps the imagination at the Palace

Roy Berko

Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle

One of the fears of seeing a show which I regarded as one of the most mesmerizing that I’ve ever seen, was that the touring company of WARHORSE would fade by comparison.  It did, somewhat, but still came out an exciting winner in the derby called theatre.

WARHORSE, which was originally staged in the US at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York’s Lincoln Center, after a smash London run, is the story of the bond between Albert, a British farm boy, and Joey, his magnificent horse.  It is based on a World War I novel by Michael Morpurgo, as adapted by Nick Stafford.

World War I, the war to end all wars, was a bloody battle in which an estimated 10 million soldiers lost their lives.  An overlooked fact is that, since the conflict was highlighted by cavalry battles, eight million horses were slaughtered.  The steeds were cut down as the weapons of warfare, including barbed wire, machine guns, cannons and armored tanks, became the weapons of destruction.  Animals were no match for these instruments.

The plot travels from the English countryside to the fields of France and Germany.  Joey, a colt, which was bought by Albert’s father in a drunken bidding contest with his hated brother, has developed into a prized horse.  At the start of the war, the father, enticed by money, sells the animal to the British military.  Distraught, underage Albert enlists in an attempt to search out and save his steed.  Through a series of searing battles we see how horse and boy eventually are reunited.

WARHORSE won 2011 Tony Awards for best play, directing, scenic design, lighting and sound design, plus a special award for Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa for creating all the realistic animals (horses, birds and a hysterically funny goose).   Every one of those citations was well deserved.

The visual elements of the production are impresively honed.  The battle scenes are scary and realistic, especially since this is a live stage production, not a movie where scenes are done over and over and graphics added.  The death and carnage of humans and animals is engrossing.  Projections and physical elements, barbed wire, and bomb explosions, fill the stage.  Birds fly, weather changes, people and animals live and die.

Nothing is more impressive than the life-sized puppet horses.  They are magnificent creatures which are ridden, whinny, display unique personalities, and become living creatures before our eyes.  The only technical thing missing in the touring production, besides the stylized armored tanks, was the lack of change in physical size as the steeds become malnourished.

Even the musical interludes, which help tell the story, are focused and encompassing.

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr’s direction and Toby Sedgwick’s horse choreography are flawless.  The staging is mind-boggling.

The cast is excellent.  Local theatre goers recognized Andrew May, long time Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theatre actor and director, as the tender-hearted, horse loving Captain Muller, the German officer.  As came to be expected in his local appearances, May was excellent.   Outside of the horses, May got the loudest applause during the curtain call.

Alex Morf makes young Albert so real that his agony becomes ours.  Angela Reed, as Albert’s mother, personifies a woman caught between the love for her son and finding a way to live with her often drunk and sullen husband. Megan Loomis as Song Woman and John Loughlin as Song Man create numerous emotional moments with their music.  In the huge cast, there is not a weak performance.

The audience appreciation was evident by the resounding curtain call.  The human actors were applauded, the horses got an extended standing ovation, and  even the goose got screams of approval.

Capsule judgement: Filled with amazing puppetry, stirring music, a riveting story, compelling graphics, and fine acting, WARHORSE is mesmerizing must see theatre. 

WARHORSE runs through April 21, 20013 as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series at the Palace Theatre in downtown Cleveland.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go on-line to