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Broadway's 'War Horse': The London hit (soon a Steven Spielberg movie) gets a Yankee makeover

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Image Credit: Simon AnnandPuppets are cool. Seven-foot-tall horse puppets made out of silk, cane, leather, and aluminum that you can actually ride are even cooler — like the ones in Lincoln Center Theater’s upcoming War Horse, a British drama about a farm boy and his steed Joey on the battlefield during World War I. Nothing like real stallions, they look more like equine exoskeletons poised around bits of netting, with shredded ribbons for tails and pointy ears. But once they move, powered by three puppeteers (two within the horse’s body, and one standing alongside its neck), you almost forget they’re fakes. 

When the cast and crew took lead puppet Joey for an amble during a recent press demonstration (with a journalist on top!), he stamped, he bucked, he snickered, and he sniffed an imaginary carrot. It was like Central Park in the summer, without the horse smell. Yet the play, based on a children’s novel, isn’t a stroll in the grass: Joey is sold to the British cavalry and captured by Germans on the Western Front, while his underage owner, Albert (Seth Numrich), joins the Army to find him. In the scene shown to the press, Joey flees a tank only to catch a hoof in barbed wire.

War Horse has been playing to packed houses in London since 2007, but don’t expect the exact same show when it opens here April 14. Americans will get more boy, less horse, according to co-director Marianne Elliott, who told EW that Albert’s role is bigger, especially in the second act. “Everything’s developing,” she says. “Human characters are fleshed out and Albert is much fuller.” We’ll also get more English: In Britain, the German and French characters speak German and French, but here all the dialogue will be in English, albeit with accents. “Having the characters speak different languages was a concept we liked at the time,” admits Elliott, “but it meant that the scenes were quite basic because people were talking in languages the audience didn’t understand. Now they can be more complex.” (In the end, whatever winds up on stage won’t be nearly as different as Steven Spielberg’s big screen adaptation, due out this Christmas. That has real horses and Emily Watson.)

This production is of one many London transplants, including La Bête and Jerusalem, to hit Broadway this season. Yet after gushing about War Horse and Britain’s National Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater artistic director André Bishop cringed when asked about importing Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, which recently opened triumphantly in London (on the same National Theatre stage where War Horse debuted). And he had a surprising reason: The production hinges on the performances of two British actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, who alternate the roles of Frankenstein and the monster. That is apparently a “no no” to Bishop, who prefers to cast Americans. “English directors that come here love American actors,” he insists. “They are in awe of American acting. So we’ve had great success doing these National shows just with Americans.” Would he consider drafting just Boyle and the production team? “No.” Next time, Danny, use puppets.

Read more:

Danny Boyle’s ‘Frankenstein’ trailer: Who wants to see Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature?

DreamWorks moves Steven Spielberg’s ‘War Horse’ to December 2011

Steven Spielberg chooses next project: ‘War Horse’

DreamWorks to make adaptation of ‘War Horse’ novel