The show: "War Horse" at Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts
What makes it special: The arrival of the Tony Award-winning production using puppetry arts.
First impressions: In answer to the question: "Does the tour of the acclaimed show match the terrific Lincoln Center production?", the answer is a qualified yes. The cast is sizable, the visuals are stunning and if it loses something on a proscenium stage played in epic hall (and if some of the performances are broad and heavily accented speech is more than muddled), it's still quite wonderful. Those magnificent, mesmerizing steeds make this an astounding theatrical experience.
Didn't Steven Spielberg make a film based on the play?: Yes. With real horses. Not the same. Strangely lacking in emotional resonance. Oddly enough, this stage work feels more cinematic than the film.
What's it about: Based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, Nick Stafford's script is well-crafted, but hardly earth-shaking: The narrative is straight-forward, the characters are broadly depicted and the dialogue is unexceptional. And yes, it is baldly sentimental in places.
But ah, the theatricality of its grand storytelling, starting with the magnificent steeds from Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa that move with such nuance and realism that you will be continually engaged. (The transition from colt to full grown horse is a stunning coup de theatre.) But the entire production beautifully integrates lighting, sound, underscoring, staging, song and projections as it takes us from the innocence of rural England to the horrors of World War I as a young lad runs away from home in search of his beloved horse his father sold into the British cavalry for savage battle in France. There the 19th and 20th century collide as the charging animals, for centuries the engines of war, are confronted with the modern world of barbed wire, machine guns and lethal gas.
And the touring company?: Michael Wyatt Cox makes a strong yet vulnerable 16-year-old Albert, taking us on his incredible journey not only to find his beloved steed but to find himself as a man. But the stars of the show are the extraordinary and seemingly invisible teams of puppeteers who manipulate the horses, birds and one scene-stealing goose.
Who will like it: Those who like horses, puppetry and theatrical extravaganza.
Who won't: Those who don't like plays with sentimental melodrama or harrowing battle scenes (but, after all, the play is not called "Peace Horse").
For the kids?: Yes, for older ones. Those under age 10 or so could find the battle depictions disturbing and some emotional scenes intense. It's not exactly "My Little Pony" here. But older kids —- especially boys —- will be riveted.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Run —- no, gallop —- to the Bushnell to see this theatrical marvel. But bring your handkerchiefs.
Side note: Can't make it to the live show? National Theater Live will present its current London production on screens across America including Hartford's Cinestudio on Feb. 27 at 2 p.m. (for a live broadcast) and for an encore on March 2 at 2:30 p.m. Also at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook Feb. 27 at 7 p.m.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: This makes twice that I've been incredibly moved by the abstract depiction of horses. The first time was in the '70s for "Equus," —- also not the most brilliant play, but spell-binding, too, in it's bravura theatricality.
The basics: The show plays through Sunday, Feb. 2 at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave. Hartford. Running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $27.50 to $100.50, not including fees. Information at 860-987-5900 and www.bushnell.org.
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