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‘War Horse’ casts a simple yet powerful spell

The enduring emotional bonds between humans and animals are at the heart of War Horse, the splendid National Theatre of Great Britain production that will be captivating audiences at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts through mid-May.

The horrors of war are also brought into stark, heartbreaking relief by a play whose simple style allows its true stars — magnificent, life-sized horse “puppets” that become living, breathing beings — to shine as they enthrall the imaginative child within anyone who watches them.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel for young readers, War Horse follows the relationship between Albert Narracott (Alex Morf), a Devon farm lad, and a stallion he names Joey. The product of a liaison between a thoroughbred and a draft horse, Joey comes into Albert’s life when the teen’s oft-drunk father, Ted (Todd Cerveris), uses the mortgage money to outbid his brother Arthur (Brian Keane) for the spirited foal.

As Joey grows, so does the connection between Albert and his horse. Ted nearly loses Joey in a bet with Arthur, a Boer War veteran who seems to delight in reminding his ne’er-do-well brother of his failure to serve the Empire.

When Britain enters World War I, Ted sells Joey for 100 pounds to Lt. James Nicholls (Jason Loughlin), an officer who will soon add drawings of his valiant new horse to his omnipresent sketchbook. An already weak father-son relationship is shattered, and soon the 16-year-old Albert lies about his age to follow his horse into hell on earth.

Nick Stafford’s War Horse script keeps the focus on Albert and Joey, together and separately, effectively exploring betrayal, loyalty and the cost of war. Its tension-relieving comic moments, however, feel superfluous.

What makes War Horse so magical, beyond the key ingredient of the remarkable horses created by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, is its simple yet powerful style. Owing more to the “poor theater” aesthetic of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski than the razzle-dazzle of contemporary commercial theater, War Horse creates a complex world.

Raging battles between the British and Germans in northern France are brought to life with little more than lighting effects, the sounds of gunfire, billowing smoke and a few men (and their horses) moving chaotically. Yet often, that artfully created action leaves the audience breathless and emotionally engaged.

Rae Smith’s sets, costumes and drawings; Paule Constable’s lighting (adapted by Karen Spahn); Adrian Sutton’s music; Christopher Shutt’s sound (adapted by John Owens) and 59 Productions’ animation and projection design are all critical, perfectly executed pieces of what makes War Horse work so well.

Staged by Bijan Sheibani, the production features a versatile American cast, including actor-singer John Milosich, whose haunting voice at key moments is a vital part of the musical palette. Scattered weaker elements include the way Morf plays Albert — he seems rather slow, not the determined young hero the story needs — and the casting of an obviously adult actress as the “little” French girl Emilie.

Lovers of Broadway at its most lavish may find War Horse too simple. But folks who go to the theater hoping to get lost in and moved by a story will feel utterly fulfilled by Joey and War Horse.