3:12 PM CST, December 12, 2012
An international blockbuster arrives in Chicago next week, a production that has played for months to capacity houses and has broken box office records. Already, it has been seen by more than a million theatergoers.
Stop already, you say. Everybody knows about the Chicago production of "The Book of Mormon," that it recently began previews and officially opens Wednesday.
But I'm talking about the show that opens Tuesday at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, right in the exhaust fumes of those Mormon missionaries. That would be "War Horse," one of the most successful live theater productions of the last decade and in the United Kingdom a show that the entire country knows and seems to love.
If you were watching Queen Elizabeth floating down the River Thames for the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant in June, you surely saw a puppet horse raise up in salute when the monarch passed the National Theatre of Great Britain. That charming shot was beamed around all corners of the former British Empire. Her soggy majesty was seen to smile in the rain.
But in Chicago this week, it's tough for Joey, that famous equine puppet created by the Handspring Puppet Theatre of South Africa, to get his nose in the media feed bag. Mormons are eating up everything in sight.
That is partly a consequence of the power of the "South Park" brand and partly a consequence of the force and marketing savvy of its top-drawer producers. But it's mostly a matter of simple economics. "The Book of Mormon" is likely to be here for a least a year, and maybe longer. "War Horse" is in Chicago for three weeks.
It's funny how things work out. I'd hoped for a dedicated Chicago production of "War Horse" or, at the very least, a run of several months. I loved the show so much on Broadway, where it was sold out for nearly two years. It won six Tony Awards. And I've always thought that family shows (which "The Book of Mormon" certainly is not) are especially popular in Chicago.
"The National Theatre of Great Britain's extraordinary 'War Horse' takes Michael Morpurgo's relatively simple children's story about a young man and his beloved horse, searching for each other through the deadly quagmire of World War I, and turns that tale into a deeply moving theatrical lament for the death of agrarian innocence and the destructive dawn of a new and, it seems, relentless age of mechanized war," I wrote in 2011.
And then there's the matter of Joey, the most incredible, mechanized 7-foot puppet you ever saw. Because you believe so completely in his reality, you can feel his mane shaking and heart stirring.
So what happened? Well, "War Horse" was snapped up by Toronto, which opened a dedicated Canadian production in February. The show continues to play there almost a year later. That left just one national touring company, which set out on the road last summer. "War Horse" was leery of overextending itself and running into the kind of touring troubles that befell "Billy Elliot," which lost millions on the road.
Anyway, that doesn't fully explain why "War Horse," which had a nine-week run in Los Angeles, is only in Chicago for three weeks. There is, certainly, a pervasive opinion that the show, which is perceived as quite English in character (that doesn't seem to harm "The Hobbit"), is a tougher sell on the road, where musicals dominate and where serious dramas tend to scare presenters.
Sure, the show can return. But "War Horse" deserved a longer initial welcome because it is a work of truth, emotion and proven excellence that honors ordinary people called to service. Here in Chicago, that it what we value the most.
So, I can't yet speak to the "War Horse" road company (check back for a review next week), but I can speak to the show (which I have seen twice). It is not to be missed and is ideal for older children.
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