Wednesday, December 19, 2012

NEWCITY REVIEW: "War Horse" by Broadway in Chicago

Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
The stage version of author Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel, “War Horse,” was met with mostly yawns and complaints about the show’s length on Tuesday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, where it opened in an oddly concise three-week run. A widely admired work of flash and heartfelt sentiment on Broadway, this national tour falls far short of its visually inspired original production’s ability to captivate and elicit big emotion from an audience. Now, the show drags along and underwhelms at every not-quite-happy-not-quite-sad lap.

What has changed? For one, it is constricted by a flat proscenium arrangement. The 2011 Tony Award winner for Best Play (originally directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris) enjoyed its adolescence at the National Theatre of Great Britain, a curved thrust stage forcefully jutting out into the audience—the same distinctive set-up of its Broadway home, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. Director Bijan Sheibani has adjusted the original staging somewhat, but his alterations are limited to unfortunate reductions in scale. “War Horse” simply doesn’t befit a venue-to-venue tour. The herd of horses still trots in faraway circles and the thirty-four-person ensemble is huddled into distant upstage corners. With those inconsiderate restrictions, the show is adequately playing to, perhaps, the first ten rows of the massive 2,344 seat theater.

I last took in “War Horse,” a supposed thoroughbred of British theatrical ingenuity, shortly after it opened to near universal raves on Broadway in 2011. While its script,  a World War I boy-and-his-horse coloring book, by Nick Stafford—among the weakest British imports in recent seasons during a veritable renaissance for UK playwriting—was a stupefying, convoluted mess, the puppeteering was, as you’ve probably already heard, heart-pumping and exhilarating. Every miniscule twitch, distraction, joint and step was performed with a surgeon’s attentiveness by the two-or-more actors manipulating each puppet. And everybody ate it up. The ongoing hoots and aw’s among the crowd were those of an enrapt audience with a certain fondness for equestrians. Some of that wondrous mood carries over. The puppeteering in Chicago remains undeniably impressive, but it relinquishes much of its luster after the first fifteen minutes or so because of the audience’s unfortunate physical detachment...


At the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph, (800)775-2000. Through January 5.