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"War Horse" is a Triumph of Theatrical Imagination

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Due to the fact that I live in Los Angeles and not New York or London, I had the unfortunate experience of seeing the film of War Horse before I saw the play. I know the movie has its defenders, and I would concede that there are moments where the picture works, but overall it was so overblown and sentimental it made Annie look like a hard-hitting exposé of child labor. Because the thing is, what makes War Horse work isn't the story—it's the theatricality. Thankfully, the new production at the Ahmanson is a triumph of theater craft, a thrilling combination of brilliant direction and exquisite puppetry that is, to distill the show into a word, magnificent.

The story begins as the eponymous equine (Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl and Nick LaMedica puppeteering) is captured as a foal and put up for sale in an English country village. Local farmer Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris) purchases the horse in an auction, and puts the animal into the care of his teenage son, Albert (Andrew Veenstra). Albert names the horse Joey (Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui puppeteering Joey as an adult) and of necessity trains the thoroughbred into a plow horse. When World War I arrives, Ted sells Joey to the British cavalry to pay his debts. A heartbroken Albert follows Joey into the war as soon as he can, swearing to find him and bring him back home safely, but the war is much worse than he can imagine.

Veenstra does reasonably well with a role that requires him to act broadly from the start, and Albert's depression toward the show's end is a nicely gauged bit of acting, contrasting with all the exhortations of affection toward his horse. Andrew May is a standout as the German officer Friedrich Muller, who is kind to Joey at the risk of his own life, and the dramatic stakes of the character's actions bring a welcome sense of danger to the play. Angela Reed is fine as Albert's mother, Rose, but the character as written is one-dimensional. The father, Ted, has a bit more character development, but Cerveris' performance is too low-key to effectively register.

Bijan Sheibani's direction (based upon the original co-direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris) trades in pure theatrical spectacle, combining light and smoke and sound and the versatile ensemble into a dazzling vision. Set pieces such as the foal of Joey being replaced by its adult version or Joey caught in no man's land or the startling introduction of a huge tank puppet are frequent and undeniably satisfying. The heart of the show, however, is the amazing puppeteering from the Handspring Puppet Company, which is so detailed and lifelike you quickly forget you're watching puppets and become emotionally involved with the horses or a particularly hilarious goose. Finally, Adrian Sutton's music adds a sweeping sense of emotion and incident, a lush film score made for the stage.

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Critics often describe shows as a "must-see," but if you've never seen this show elsewhere, this is a show any theater lover should seek out. It's easily one of the best productions of the year.

"War Horse" plays at the Ahmanson Theatre through July 29. Tickets are available online.