Posted in Reviews, Uncategorized

A Review: War Horse…Winner!

Thanks to Nicole Barrett and KLIF radio, I won 4 tickets to see War Horse at the Winspear, last night.  It was marvelous!  Marvelous. 

From the War Horse on Stage website:

War Horse, based on the beloved novel by Michael Morpurgo, is a powerfully moving and imaginative drama, filled with stirring music and magnificent artistry. South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company brings breathing, galloping, full-scale horses to life on the stage — their flanks, hides and sinews built of steel, leather and aircraft cables.
Experience the emotional journey that charges through the battlefields of history straight to hearts of audiences around the world.
I have never seen anything like the puppets used for the horses.  I had read, in reviews, that after a few scenes you forget you are looking at a puppet.  I was skeptical, but I can tell you that within moments I forgot I was looking at a puppet.  Those horses are alive with movement, breath, quivering manes and tails, and grace.  The grace is indescribable. 
Thor with the tickets we won, courtesy of the Nicole Barrett show on KLIF radio. Thank you, Nicole!

I’m not sure what I expected of the show.  I hadn’t seen the movie, or read the book, so the lady at Will Call, where we picked up our tickets, made sure to let us know that there would be some loud scenes of war.  Set during World War I, she wondered if that would bother Thor?  Thor asked, “Will we get to see guns?!”  Boy child.

The story is simple and the stage was spare.  The stage set is an open area (so that the massive horses could move freely) with a black, backing screen with a slash of cream across at a height.  It looks like a piece of a page torn out of a book, pasted across the “sky”, and it becomes the sky, and the earth, and the war–many things as pencil sketch drawings fill in the gaps between imagination and prop.

Here a window drops down, and here a door, and on the screen you see the scribbled thatch roof of an English farmhouse.  Here stand the cast/crew with fence posts, and on the screen you see the rolling hills of the English countryside.  Here sit the officers astride their horses, and on the small slash of screen you see the battlements behind them.

I was impressed by the way they utilized the screen.  In one scene, after an entire half of the play in pencil sketched, black and white, the screen blooms with the bright red blood of British soldiers in the field, and as the splatters spread, they bleed into the shapes of poppies.  It was simple, and understated, and intense.

This was Thor’s first theater experience, so as we were leaving, I asked what he thought.  Among his delight at the horses and the tanks, he said, “I really liked that screen.  That was really, really good.”  So, it was well done enough that a jaded adult was impressed by it, and a 7-year-old neophyte could grasp it’s purpose and make an emotional connection with the scenery.

Thor standing in front of the War Horse poster at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. This was his first theater experience, and he was impressed with the massive horse puppets as I was.

War is hell on both sides, and this play did a great job of humanizing the soldiers.  Sure, there are the caricatures you expect, but ultimately, what you see are human beings who have the same hopes, dreams, thoughts, and feelings, and whose only differences are in the styles of their uniforms, and the accents they bear.

I watched the year-markers ticking by on the screen and thought, “My grandfather wasn’t born yet.  My great-grandmother would have been pregnant now.  Boom would have been an infant.  Boom might just have been learning to crawl.  What kind of world was it for them?  How uncertain?”  It was a different war, for sure.  What does a cavalry do against machine guns?  What do horses do against barbed wire?

One of the themes of the play is the progression of mankind.  I love that in this day of 3-D animation, CGI, and surround sound, I got to watch this simple, beautiful, unadorned show. 

Every show has its challenges, and there were a few things that stood out to me (and to the man behind me, who was cataloging aloud), but none of them were significant enough to name.  The cast performed very well, and the stage crew and puppeteers–you just have to see it to understand why they are so amazing.

Our friends Leslieann and Ellie were able to join us for the play.

I have been telling everyone about the horses in the show.  Again, puppets, and puppets worked by three, full-sized adults each.  I can’t explain to you how these grown people blended into nothing against the flick of a tail, or the shake of a head, or the stamping of a hoof, but they did.  In one scene, two of the horses challenge and chase one another, rearing up and bucking in a choreographed dance that looked like equine ballet.  In slow motion.  Y’all, they did it in slow motion.  And. It. Was. Perfect.  It was breathtaking.

So how did my 7-year-old do at his first theater experience? 

The play lasts 160 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.  We hit the toilets right before taking our seats, so Thor was able to sit through the entire first half of the show–on the edge of his seat, which is where he stayed most of the time. 

The second half of the show happened almost 2 hours past his usual bedtime, so I expected him to slouch, fall asleep, or show signs of restlessness.  Nope.  He did ask me two questions, but those had to do with the plot.  He remained upright, engaged, and jumped up to participate in the standing ovation for the cast.  He loved it.  As well behaved a boy as I have, I give a lot of credit to the production for being so interesting and entertaining that the time flew by.  It really felt like just an hour, instead of two and a half.

What I liked best:

  1. The horses.  They could not have been more realistic.
  2. The story itself.  
  3. The way the screen/backdrop was used.

What Thor liked best:

  1. The tank.
  2. The horses.
  3. The dialog between two soldiers, one British, one German, as they fumble their way through to saving a horse from harm.  (Which should tell you how well done and how well acted the scene was!)

5 out of 5 stars

Once again, much thanks to Nicole Barrett and KLIF.  We would never even have considered going to see the show without their gracious gift, and I am so glad we went!

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Posted in music, Reviews

Memphis the Musical: A review

Thanks to Nicole Barrett and radio station KLIF, I won two tickets to opening night of the Dallas Summer Musical performance of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, Memphis.  It’s always great to get out to a show, and the free-er, the better!   I’m sure that’s what the people in front of me thought when they got the free peepshow of my panties.  I got my dress caught on a theater seat and somehow managed to yank both it and my slip up over my hips.  Sorry, people!  At least you weren’t charged for the view.

I enjoy musical theater.  I have no problem with people bursting into song at odd moments, full orchestras invisibly swelling behind people who are suddenly dancing and singing.  I mean, except for the musicians, I do that all the time.  Why shouldn’t everyone else?  And, since my latest guilty pleasure is SMASH!, I was very excited to go see Memphis.

Sadly, I was disappointed.

First, though, the highlights.  Felicia Boswell, who played Felicia Farrell, was fantastic.  Her vocals were wonderful, and I would sit and listen to her sing all night.  She also cut a smashing figure in her costumes, and moved beautifully.  She’s got some amazing arms.

The choreography was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed watching the dancing.  Made me wish I could move like that.

The costuming was great.

About half of the numbers were truly enjoyable.  The other half?

So, when you leave a good musical, you should be humming a song, or at least have an earworm.  Even after the first episode of Smash!, I was humming “Let Me Be Your Star” without realizing it.  A good musical should have at least one number that you want to stop, rewind, and play again.  Memphis didn’t have any of these for me.  I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the music–in fact, there were a couple of songs Boswell sang that made me wish I could replay the stylings she gave them, but that was everything to do with her, and nothing to do with Memphis.  I walked out and couldn’t have sung you a bar from any of the songs they performed, and given my Mockingbird like recall for music, that’s saying something really sad.

Several of the actors seemed to be having trouble with their mics.  At least, I’m going to give them that benefit of the doubt, otherwise I can’t see why they would have been cast.  Dialogue was garbled and unintelligible in places, with Boswell and a trio of supporting actors being the only characters I could completely understand.  The star of the show, Bryan Fenkart, who plays Huey Calhoun (the fictionalized version of Dewey Phillips, upon whom the story is built) was just not good at all.

Most of the time, Fenkart couldn’t be understood at all.  He, and the rest of the cast, adopt what passes for a Tennessee accent (if you have never been to Tennessee) and on top of his hick twang, he has added a version of Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy hiccoughing affectation.  I could catch two or three words of every sentence.  Having no knowledge of the musical beforehand, when his character first appeared, I thought he was playing the stereotypical Southern Mentally Challenged trope.  That’s how affected his speech was.  It took a couple of scenes before I realized he was the star, and quit waiting for him to meet some end like Mercutio.  His vocals were marginal and his dancing made me think he’d been cast for his vocals.

The story was all right.  I feel like the subject matter could have been handled much better, but that would have required taking the focus from Huey and putting it on Felicia–rewriting the show entirely.  I was very uncomfortable with some of the language.  Racial epitaphs are a part of my family’s conversational history that I have worked hard to distance from, and it was actually painful to sit through listening to dialogue that sounded like it had been tape-recorded off my Granny’s back porch.  Yes, it was historically accurate, but also yes, the seriousness, danger and sadness of the era were completely glossed over in lieu of using a few slurs to set a tone.  It made too light of the violence and hate that were rampant in those days, relegating the truth of the matter to two offhand comments and one short scene in the matter of 2.5 hours.  If you’re going to do a show about racism in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, you’ve got to commit.  People died.

I wasn’t engrossed, and there was a massive shift in Huey’s character after intermission surprised me.  Though, I think I was supposed to infer that he had become a drunk because he drank from a flask twice in the 6-8 year span of time the last half of the play covered.  His speech and movement never changed, so who knows?  I just know he started behaving differently toward Felicia.

I liked the parts revolving around Felicia, and wished there was more to her story, her brother’s story, and the people around her, and less about the herp-derp DJ.  I appreciated that Felicia was a strong-willed, independent woman, and was glad for how she ended up.  I guess I liked everything about her.

So…I’d give it 2 out of 5 stars.  It wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t great.  It was somewhere short of average for me.  I loved having the night out, though, and do really appreciate the free tickets!