When a broadway show comes to Boston, it generally leaves its top-shelf stars behind in New York. That's not the case with War Horse, which has brought its big draw to the Opera House (through October 21). Puppet Joey, all chestnut mesh and cane and repurposed bicycle parts, could become America's biggest equine sensation since Secretariat. Every whinny, every whicker, every prescient flick of the ear is faithfully conveyed by his three adept handlers (two inside, one at his head). He has more personality than a lot of human thespians.

Which is a good thing, because the humans in this by-the-numbers adaptation of British author Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel (also the source of the Steven Spielberg film) need all the help they can get. The best part of War Horse is the first hour or so of barnyard drama. Struggling (and frequently inebriated) Devon farmer Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris) outbids his brother Arthur (Brian Keane) for the foal Joey, who's half thoroughbred, half draft horse. Ted's son Albert (Andrew Veenstra) bonds with the spirited colt and even induces him to draw a plow. Ted has bet Arthur that Joey will do it and has told Albert he can have the horse if Joey comes through. Joey's transformation from foal to stallion, in a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus burst of light, is a mighty spectacle. Equally rewarding, though, is the puppet goose on a wheel that careers about the yard, nuzzles with Joey, and tries to sneak into the house, only to have Albert's mom, Rose (Angela Reed), keep shutting the door in its face.

Then World War I breaks out and Ted breaks his promise, selling Joey as an officer's mount for £100. Joey makes friends with a huge black thoroughbred named Topthorn; Albert follows Joey to Calais and makes a friend of his own, Private David Taylor (Alex Morf). War quickly turns to hell, as the British cavalry discover they're no match for machine guns and concertina wire. War Horse conveys vividly the noise, the confusion, the shock, and the mindlessness of combat. Toward the end, Joey is the means by which we see that everyone, British and French and Germans alike, loves horses. Still, the play isn't about what Joey and Albert do; it's about what happens to them. The human actors, with authentic-sounding accents, manage well enough with their stereotypical parts. But it's the puppets in War Horse that elicit human emotion.

WAR HORSE :: Opera House, 539 Washington St, Boston :: Through October 21 :: $25-$170 :: 617.259.3400 or

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached

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