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Horses Joey and Topthorn in the Marcus Center's production of "War Horse."
Horses Joey and Topthorn in the Marcus Center's production of "War Horse." (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)

Golden sheen of technology disguises soap opera in "War Horse"

The horse puppets were absolutely spectacular.

And it’s a good thing, because besides the horses – and I know I’m in a real minority here – I felt like I was trapped in the middle of a soap opera for 12-year-olds when "War Horse" opened at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday night.

A huge and very appreciative house full of customers warmed, smiled, chuckled, sighed and gasped every time "War Horse" asked them to. I might have been the only one in the whole place who wondered what all the fuss was about.

"War Horse," winner of five Tony awards including Best Play in 2011, has been playing to capacity crowds in London and New York for years. Its national tour does boffo business.

But to me, it was a victory of wonderful, amazing technology instead of a substantive, adult story.

The play is based on the 1982 children’s novel of the same name, written by Michael Morpurgo, a highly acclaimed children’s author.

While the producers of this effort went to great lengths to create a visual panorama that is unmatched in my experience, someone forgot to tell everyone that we also need an adult story if we are going to expect adult people to pay hundreds of dollars to come and see it.

Here’s the story. Boy gets horse. Boy trains horse. Boy falls in love with horse. Horse falls in love with boy. Boy loses horse. Boy begins long search for horse.

I’m not going to tell you how it ends, but it’s pretty easy to guess.

In the middle of this, we have World War I, complete with Bad Germans; Good British; a surprised French maiden; bombs; lightning; dead soldiers and horses; vultures pecking at the dead soldiers and horses; a German traitor; two best-friend horses, one of whom dies from exhaustion; a conversation between a boy and a horse which the horse seems to understand; and music.

Oh, the music.

The music is a vital part of the button-pushing this emotionally manipulative play pushes like an expert.

Huns with Guns? Give us bombastic music with horns, and lots and lots of drums. The boy pledges to the horse, "I’ll find a way to keep you; I’ll pay the debt myself," and we hear a soaring serenade with more strings than a tennis racket. You get the point.

Nobody expects much intellectual effort to be expended when watching this play. The only coin of this realm is EMOTION.

It really works, and I think I know why.

The audience is so stunned by the incredible wizardry of the horse (and goose and bird and vulture) puppets that they don’t really need to pay much attention to the story.

The staging is absolutely gorgeous. The acting is fine. The technology, from the banner on the back wall that changes with every event to the puppets, is something everyone should see. At least once.

I hope this show is a massive hit in Milwaukee because I want first class Broadway tours to keep stopping here.

The only other hope I have is that the next one realizes that there are grownups are in the audience, and their standards are a little higher than your average 12-year-old.


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