Theater Review: ‘War Horse’ Tour a Purebred Spectacular

Photo 6The National Theatre of Great Britain’s War Horse is a theatrical purebred that fills the senses like no other show. The US tour of this award-winning heart-warmer is now commanding the stage in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall like the champion it is.

Michael Morpurgo’s beloved 1982 novel of the same name spawned the play in 2007. (For those who might wonder, the play helped inspire Steven Spielberg’s Oscar®-nominated 2011 feature film instead of the other way around.)

After five Tonys® on Broadway and appearances around the globe this phenomenal storytelling experience is finally here – and it lives up to all the hype. Photo 4Nick Stafford’s POV-shifting adaptation of Morpurgo’s book (which used Joey the horse as narrator) is directed with fluid grace on tour by Bijan Sheibani based on the original Tony® Award-winning direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. And the company of actors and puppeteers – who figuratively and literally breathe life into the awe-inspiring life-size puppets created by South Africa’s Special Tony® Award-winning Handspring Puppet Company under the direction of Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones – taking War Horse through this country are gifted top-tier pros.

It’s easy to understand why the intricately crafted puppets – operated by Mairi Babb, Catherine Gowl, Nick Lamedica (Joey as a foal); James Duncan, Brian Robert Burns, Dayna Tietzen (Joey); Jon Hoche, Patrick Osteen, Gregory Manley (Topthorn); Curt James, Jessica Krueger (Coco); Brendan Murray, Caden Douglas (Heine); and a Goose animated by Manley – gain much of the attention from press and public. To see Joey go from foal to full-grown horse, to watch and hear him and the other animals created by Handspring (for their maneuvers credit also goes to acclaimed director of movement and horse choreography Toby Sedgwick, his associate Adrienne Kapstein and associate puppetry director Matthew Acheson as well) like their flesh-and-blood counterparts is truly amazing.

But just as humans are behind those sounds and moves War Horse also features actors that take the tale’s other characters and make them very believable. That includes Michael Wyatt Cox as young Albert Narracott, the Devon farm boy who rears and loves Joey; Maria Elena Ramirez as Albert’s strong and loving mother Rose; Gene Gillette, who clearly conveys the tortured soul of Albert’s father Ted (and later appears as a German officer); Brendan Murray, who we see sketching the foal Joey at the start before he later takes him off to the fight against the Central Powers in World War I; Andrew Long, who goes from playing Albert’s initially pompous uncle Arthur to his suffer-no-fools-gladly drill instructor Sergeant Thunder; Andrew May as the sentimental German captain Friedrich Muller; Chad Jennings as the ruthless Corporal Klebb; and Ka-Ling Cheung as the sweet innocent Emilie. Photo 3Rae Smith’s projected drawings (as well as her set and costume designs) add much to the visual marvels that Paule Constable and Karen Spahn have lit so brilliantly. Christopher Shutt and John Owens‘ sound work is impeccable, particularly when the powerful original score by Adrian Sutton and folk songs by John Tams – sung with haunting eloquence by John Milosich instrumentally accompanied by Spiff Wiegand – well up to embrace this story for hearts of all ages about love, friendship, loyalty and courage (as well as the destructive horrors of war).

If this review seems little more than a lengthy list of names I beg readers to understand this incredible storytelling spectacle is the result of a great collaborative effort stretching around the world for several years. Go see War Horse before it leaves Nashville and you’ll likely leave Jackson Hall grateful to have witnessed one of the theater world’s rarest wonders.

RELATED STORY International Theater Phenomenon ‘War Horse’ Opens at TPAC

RELATED STORY Pictorial: Joey and ‘War Horse’ Friends Gallop Into TPAC!

Tennessee Performing Arts Center presents the multiple Tony Award-winning play “War Horse” as part of the HCA/TriStar Health Broadway at TPAC series though Sunday. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Today-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday in Jackson Hall at TPAC (505 Deaderick St.). The production is recommended for ages 10 and up. Tickets (starting at $20) are available online by clicking here or by calling (615) 782-4040. On Friday, June 6, TPAC will host “Heroes Night” in honor of the World War I subject matter of War Horse and the 70th anniversary of World War II’s D-Day Invasion of Europe. They will have a pre-show honor guard and specially priced tickets are available to military personnel, their families, veterans and organizations serving the military community. Click here for information about the Tennessee State Museum’s War Horse Pre-Show Military Museum Tours June 6 & 7. Info:


*Photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg and video courtesy the National Theatre and TPAC.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (