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Conscripted horses Joey (right) and Topthorn prepare to charge the Germans in a battle scene from War Horse (photo © Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)

Conscripted horses Joey (right) and Topthorn prepare to charge the Germans in a battle scene from War Horse (photo © Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)

By Richard Ades

When you saw The Phantom of the Opera or Miss Saigon for the first time, chances are you didn’t come out of the theater exclaiming, “What a chandelier!” or “What a helicopter!”

The special effects, as spectacular as they were, simply played supporting roles to the stories and the music of the night.

When you come out of War Horse, conversely, chances are you will say something along the lines of “What a horse!” Which is to say, “What a puppet!”

The life-size puppets that portray titular steed Joey and other equines are the best thing about this Tony-winning British import. They trot and gallop, fight and play, eat, swat flies and generally behave like real-life horses.

In Act 1, frankly, they’re more believable than their human co-stars. Working under Bejan Sheibani’s direction (which is based on the work of original co-directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), the actors often emote in melodramatic tones that suggest every moment of every day is a life-or-death struggle.

Credibility does improve in Act 2, when both the humans and the horses actually are engaged in a life-or-death struggle—namely, World War I. But even then, the tale is less impressive than the stagecraft with which it’s told: not only the horses, but the sights and sounds that suggest, rather than depict, the horrors of battle.

Adapted by Nick Stafford from a novel by Michael Murpugo, War Horse is a simple story.

In Devon, England, a poor farmer named Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris) buys a foal at auction simply to show up his brother. Ted’s wife, Rose (Angela Reed), is not pleased, as the family can’t afford a horse that was bred as a hunter rather than a beast of burden. But their son, Albert (Alex Morf), quickly makes friends with the colt and takes on its care and training.

The real drama begins years later, when war breaks out and Ted sells the now-grown Joey to the army to fight the Germans. Though underage, a heartbroken Albert secretly enlists and is sent to France, where he hopes to be reunited with his old friend. What he doesn’t know is that Joey has fallen into German hands—in particular, those of a horse lover named Capt. Muller (a nuanced Andrew May), who does what he can to keep this beautiful animal away from the battlefield.

There are complications and close calls throughout the adventure, some of them quite harrowing. Even so, most viewers will have little trouble predicting how it will come out. As a result, the main surprises involve the way the tale is told, rather than the tale itself.

Besides the puppeteers, the real heroes are behind-the-scenes talents such as set designer Rae Smith, lighting designers Paule Constable and Karen Spahn, and “horse” choreographer Toby Sedgwick. An onstage singer (Megan Loomis replaced regular vocalist John Milosich on opening night) also plays an influential role by contributing mournful folk-style tunes.

War Horse is melodrama—melodrama that is sometimes overdone and ultimately predictable. But for most viewers, the innovative staging should make it a memorable ride.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present War Horse through Sunday (April 28) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 1 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $35-$95. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

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