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On Theater: 'War Horse' is a winner

January 23, 2013|By Tom Titus
  • A scene from "War Horse," which is at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through Feb. 3.
A scene from "War Horse," which is at the Segerstrom… (Courtesy Brinkhoff…)

Those who have seen Steven Spielberg's excellent cinematic version of "War Horse" and are planning to catch the stage production at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts may be wondering how on earth live theater can duplicate the splendor and throat-catching armed conflict of the movie.

Very nicely, as a matter of fact. The theatrical version (which preceded the movie) is nothing less than awesome, particularly in its animation of the central character, a thoroughbred steed named Joey, sold into military service by a destitute English farmer and sought in the midst of World War I carnage by the man's heartbroken son.

Never have special effects ruled a play so definitively as in "War Horse." Although it takes three handlers to simulate the steed's movements — most naturally and beautifully, it might be added — the human factor pales in comparison to equine accomplishments.

Directed in epic fashion by Bijan Shelbani, "War Horse" fills the stage with graphic splendor while a panoramic rear-projection screen above the action depicts the atmosphere surrounding each scene. The combat sequences, and their attendant sound and lighting effects, are most impressive, even though some may find the battle scenes a bit excessive and overlong.

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Andrew Veenstra renders a hearty account of young Albert, Joey's de facto master, while Todd Cerveris archly depicts the heavily imbibing father, whose patience at converting a thoroughbred into a plow horse is at its breaking point. Angela Reed is a fountain of strength as the mother, who exercises rigid control.

Others making vivid impressions are Grayson DeJesus as Joey's new military master, Brian Keane as a bellowing British sergeant, Andrew May as a German soldier valuing self-preservation and Lavita Shaurice as a young French girl attempting to communicate with him.

Star billing, however, goes to Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger, who together animate and "humanize" the proud and faithful Joey — two underneath the horse, virtually unseen, and the third outside, controlling the animal's head movements. Together, they function amazingly as they bring Joey to full-bodied life.

The horrors of war are reduced to heart-rending humanity as Veenstra and a German soldier, under flag of truce, combine efforts to rescue Joey from the painful clutches of barbed wire, then flip a coin for his ownership.

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