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(Courtesy photo) The character of Joey, a puppet whose story is at the heart of the stage play "War Horse."
Utah actor finds the galloping power of ‘War Horse’
Stage » The London and Broadway hit brings its spectacular puppets — and potent story — to Salt Lake.
First Published Apr 16 2014 03:33 pm • Last Updated Apr 23 2014 03:00 pm

The idea of making his novel "War Horse" into a stage play struck British writer Michael Morpurgo as crazy.

Employing puppets to dramatize his young-adult novel, a harsh World War I story told through the eyes of a horse, seemed as silly as the idea of "Mister Ed," the early 1960s American TV show about a talking horse, Morpurgo says now.

At a glance

‘War Horse’ gallops into town

The national touring show plays in Salt Lake City as part of the Broadway Across America — Utah season.

Where » Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

When » 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, April 22-24; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 25-26; 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, April 26; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 27.

Tickets » $40-$90 (plus facility and ticketing fees) at arttix.org or 801-355-2787

Also » Access to Capitol Theatre is affected by the construction of the new Ballet Centre. Theatergoers should plan on adding 15 to 20 minutes to their commute.

Pedestrian notes » The sidewalk west of the theater is closed. The drop-off/loading zone has been pushed east of the theater, near the bus stop.

Parking » For ADA parking, look for on-street parking east of the theater on 200 South. Also, on 200 South, there are three garages with paid parking available: Ampco 170 Garage, 170 S.Main St., with entrance on 200 South next to Capitol Theatre; Ampco 175 Garage, 175 S. West Temple; or American Plaza Garage, 51 W. 200 South, across from the theater.

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It was the theatrical spectacle of the puppetry by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company that proved him wrong.

"War Horse," originally published in 1982, had languished "sort of lost and forlorn" on the prolific writer’s backlist until it was discovered by director Tom Morris, who was looking for an animal story that could be brought to life by Handspring’s puppets.

The show was a hit on London’s West End (adapted by Nick Stafford, directed by Morris and Marianne Elliott, with horse choreography by Toby Sedgwick), and in 2011 transferred to Broadway, where it won five Tony Awards, including Best Play.

Steven Spielberg adapted the story into a film in 2011 after one of his producers saw the London show.

"I wish I could say Steven Spielberg was one of my millions of readers," a laughing Morpurgo, 70, the author of 134 books, said in an interview from his Devon property, where he and his wife run Farms For City Children, a charity for underprivileged youth.

Now the Tony-winning touring show comes to Salt Lake City for an eight-show run at the Capitol Theatre, with a cast that includes Utah native Maria Elena Ramirez. She plays Rose Narracott (Emily Watson’s role in the movie), the loving mother of young Albert. Albert trains the foal, Joey, before the horse is sold to the British calvary at the outbreak of the war and is later conscripted by German forces.

Rose "is a no-nonsense farm woman trying to keep her family together," Ramirez says. "Her husband seems to put them through a number of unfortunate circumstances, and I try to keep the family together. That’s who I am."

Audiences are bowled over by the theatrical spectacular of the show’s 7-foot horse puppets, says Ramirez during a phone interview from Kansas City, Mo. "War Horse" asks the audience to believe the horses, operated onstage by three visible puppeteers, are real. (The show’s only stars "are these wretched puppets," Morpurgo says.)

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"Once they are onstage for a few minutes, you really forget that those three puppeteers exist," Ramirez says. "It becomes a communal experience between the actors and the audience. This show has been all over the world now, so there’s something that’s really working about it."

And with the tour, Ramirez will perform all over the country, as well as in Canada, Northern Europe and a tour-ending August stint in Japan. "I’ve been to places I would never have been to before," she says. "You really experience Middle America."

Ramirez grew up in North Salt Lake and Bountiful, graduating from Judge Memorial Catholic High School and the University of Utah’s Acting Training Program, before going onto graduate school at New York University. She credits teachers like Jody Duffy Brings, then at Judge ("I don’t know if she knows how influential she was"), as well as theater professors at the U. for helping her figure out what she wanted to do. "I never professed I was going to be an actress, or anything," she says. "It just sort of happened. I wasn’t into the whole exhibitionist part. It was more performing, getting dressed up, fantasizing and taking on another personality. In school, if there was a chance to dress up and be something, that was appealing to me."

Anne Cullimore Decker, one of Ramirez’s theater professors at the U., remembers her substance. "She was quietly very bright, she didn’t have to show her brightness," Decker says. "She was always a lovely presence, and a lovely person to work with."

Decker remembers attending Ramirez’s showcase in New York City at the end of her graduate studies, and was impressed at how the Utah native demonstrated the confidence and street savvy of a New Yorker.

Previously, Ramirez originated the role of Rachel Jackson in the emo rock-history musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which hit Broadway for a short run in late 2010. (The New York Times termed the show "rowdy, dopey and devastatingly shrewd.")

Her résumé also includes film work, including "Happythankyoumoreplease," which played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, and the upcoming "St. Vincent De Van Nuys," with Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts.

Getting to cross a Broadway performance off the bucket list: Well, that’s an honor that writer Michael Morpurgo has also enjoyed, after having the chance to play an extra in a "War Horse" crowd scene with the London and New York casts. "I can now sit down with my grandchildren and say: ‘Your grandfather has acted on Broadway.’ "

Morpurgo was worried about the show’s transfer to America, where the history of World War I isn’t as deeply embedded in the country’s consciousness as it is in Great Britain and Germany.

"What they understood, maybe more quickly than here, is that this story is about all wars," he realized while sitting in a Broadway theater. "Americans think of it as a story about conflict. The horse represents all victims of war. When that horse rears up as he is caught on a wire, that’s really the scream of humanity, raging against the cruelty of war."



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