"Spring is in the air!" cracks Sergeant Thunder at the top of the second act ofWar Horse. And so it was last evening all around the temperate environs of Lincoln Center, as the combined efforts of literally hundreds of people - from puppetmakers to musical arrangers to the nightly maintenance crew - reached their fruition with the grand opening of this National Theatre of Great Britain production, transplanted to New York.
Backstage, the hallways, usually dominated by racks of woolen costumes, looked like Christmas, with good-luck-and-thanks gifts teeming on makeshift tables. My favorite of all the creative presents: a mouse-pad-sized magnet, showing a sepia photo of the show's puppeteers, with their faces blackened like coal miners. (I hope to share it with you one day, along with the story of how it came to be.)
Out front, the audience responded as audiences have ever since the production premiered three-and-a-half years ago in London: with gasps of approval for the entrance of Joey the adult horse, with chuckles for the incessantly nosy goose, and with emotion - yes, with sentiment! - at the story's conclusion.
When the applause abated, the audience and artists made across the plaza to the candle-lit party at Avery Fisher Hall in a quick trot. (Please excuse me for slipping off the wagon. I have, like many connected with War Horse, taken the pledge to eschew equine comparisons - to, as they used to say at my old stomping grounds, The New Yorker, "block that metaphor!" But unlike Joey and Topthorn I am too weak, too human.) The grand-buffet dinner was spread over three levels. There was beef and chicken and pasta. Unlike the party for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, where gazpacho was served, there was no attempt to have the repast thematically resemble the show being celebrated. There was, that is, no horsemeat on the menu. The absence of this delicacy stands in contrast to the situation in post-World War I France, where, I learned from War Horse original author Michael Morpugo this week at an LCT platform event, some of the horses who survived the conflict were sold to butchers.
No butchers' aprons - or muddy military costumes - were on parade at Avery Fisher, to which many cast members brought out-of-town parents and siblings as dates. Co-director Marianne Elliott, who once in an interview described herself as a "girly girl," embraced the spring weather with a smart, shoulder-exposing number. Her directorial colleague, Tom Morris, whose everyday attire - scarves and shirts in Carnaby-Street patterns - cuts a refreshing contrast to the tee shirts and jeans we grubs tend to wear, did not disappoint. While the rest of the male revelers adhered to a dark palette, Morris stepped out, suitwise, in what looked, in the dimly lit hall, like earthen orange. (Style points: a perfect ten). Similar high marks to cast members Jonathan Christopher MacMillan and Austin Durant (back from a weeklong back rest: welcome home!), who complimented each other's wingtips. Stand to!
In terms of organization, War Horse represents a partnership between the National Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater, and Bob Boyett's theater company, and the panjandrums of all three groups made a spectacular turnout last night. In terms of heart, however, War Horse, now that the opening has been achieved and the confetti has been swept up, belongs to the cast and backstage crew who will keep it running eight times a week. And I can tell you that that cast and crew are having the kind of warm, in-the-flesh, communal experience, in our isolated, text-mad world, that most performers dream about but rarely achieve. "This is what an actor lives for, why should I ever leave?" said cast member Joel Reuben Ganz, when I told him that the production had become an open-ended run, in response to ticket sales already as overwhelming as the lines yesterday outside an "X Factor" audition in Newark.
With steady work in hand, War Horse cast members are not likely to defect to such reality-show tryouts. They are, however, not above aping the mannerisms of certain well-known characters on TV programs, scripted and unscripted, that take place in New Jersey. I was shocked, shocked to learn at last night's glorious party that, one day recently backstage, Seth Numrich slicked back his hair and started channeling his character, Albert Narracott, as if that fine Devon lad were some schnook or Snooki of Italian heritage. I look forward to catching a glimpse of this impersonation some day. Even more, I await the day when the title steed Joey sheds his human handlers and, with a noble snort, starts talking back to both the actors and the audience. I strenuously doubt he'll sound like Tony Soprano.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.