Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel “War Horse” is the kind of story that you never would imagine could be staged live.
Unlike Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming film version, which is set to debut later this year, using real horses on Broadway is not an option.
But thanks to a large cast and the most stunning use of puppetry since “The Lion King,” this co-production by Lincoln Center Theater and London’s National Theatre is absolutely masterful and immensely moving. It first premiered in London in 2007 and has been playing there ever since.
Set before and during World War I, the story follows the relationship between Albert, a young English farmboy, and his beloved horse Joey.
When Albert’s drunken father sells Joey to the army, the underage Albert enlists in order to find his horse in France.
Joey and several other horses are depicted onstage using life-size puppets that are each operated by three men. The puppeteers depict the horses galloping, breathing, screaming and interacting with human characters. The spectacle of the puppetry, however, serves the story and never overwhelms it.
The production is set on a bare stage aided by a series of line-sketch projections that emphasize the deadliness of war with graphic imagery. At the close of Act 1, Joey is seen jumping through patches of barbed wire amid machine-gun fire on the front lines. Toward the end, a giant tank even crosses the stage.
The large all-American cast is truly convincing and works seamlessly with the puppeteers.
Be warned that “War Horse” is a genuine tearjerker. But it is not so sentimental as to be off-putting. This is tug-at-your-heartstrings storytelling at its most spectacular and transcendent.
If you go: “War Horse” plays at the Vivian Beaumont Theater through June 26. 150 W. 65th St., 212-239-6200, warhorseonbroadway.com.