“War Horse”: An epic story comes to the Fox

Joey, the equine star of “War Horse,” is no pushover. After arriving on the Narracott family farm in the English village of Devon on the brink of World War I, he’s a spirited animal who must be tamed by the winsome young Albert.

His transformation, from skittish foal to soaring stallion, is a lovely way for Broadway in Atlanta to open its 2012-2013 season at the Fox Theatre. For Joey, you see, is neither a real animal nor a cheap imitation in a furry costume. He’s a bare-bones puppet, manipulated by three actors, and it’s his balletic presence, towering yet graceful, that lifts this import from the National Theatre of Great Britain to such ecstatic heights.

Actually, it takes an army-size company, working as a team, to bring the spectacle to life. Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford and produced in-the-round at Lincoln Center Theater on Broadway, the show squeezes itself onto the Fox’s proscenium stage without sacrificing too much sweep, evincing a kind of cinematic miracle of high- and low-tech design. There’s even a Song Man (vocals by John Milosich; instrumentals by Nathan Koci) who lilts romantically of the mysteries of the heart.

The wheels of the drama are propelled at first by sibling rivalry. (Albert’s father and uncle get into a bidding war and then a bet over ownership of the horse.) And as the story unfolds, the horrors of war hit home with the brutality of an electric torpedo. But it’s the magical chemistry between Albert (Andrew Veenstra) and Joey that drives this intimate tale on an epic scale to its teary and affecting conclusion.

I recently caught this five-Tony Award winner on Broadway and felt great sorrow and joy in Atlanta native Andrew Durand’s account of Albert. I was less convinced by Veenstra’s performance but felt that the uneven, over-stretched play was told with greater economy and efficiency. The rest of the Narracott clan is played by Angela Reed (as Albert’s mother, Rose); Todd Cerveris (as his father, Ted); Brian Keane (as his uncle, Arthur); and Michael Wyatt Cox (as his cousin, Billy). It’s a very solid if not stellar group. Andrew May, as the German captain who mistakes a French girl (Lavita Shaurice) for his daughter, captures the walking nightmare of a tortured soul.

Rae Smith’s costumes, sets and drawings (which are limned by an invisible hand on a screen above the stage) are top notch. Puppet design, by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company, is almost impossibly beautiful and Toby Sedgwick’s horse choreography is genius material. Of course the skeletal horses would be nothing without human actors to operate them; and the opening night team of Danny Yoerges, Brian Robert Burns and Gregory Manley (as Joey) and Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger (as Joey’s mighty friend, Topthorn) were exceptional. While Krueger makes for a pretty audacious goose, too, it’s the noble horses that give you goosebumps.

Theater review

“War Horse”

Grade: B

8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. 2 p.m. Saturday. 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Through Sunday. $30-$85. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499; foxatltix.com; broadwayinatlanta.com

Bottom line: A thing of beauty, for all ages.

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