By John Benson
When Andrew May left Northeast Ohio in early 2010 to pursue television and feature film opportunities in Hollywood, the veteran Cleveland-area stage actor had high hopes.
However, the hurry-up-and-wait game proved tedious for the Chicago native. Eventually, as most actors do, he gravitated to New York City with his eyes set on Broadway. After performing in off-Broadway show “Moon for the Misbegotten,” May got his wish in the national touring production of the Tony Award-winning “War Horse,” which makes its Cleveland debut April 9 through 21 in the Palace Theatre.
“I’ve never done a touring production before in my life, and I thought, ‘Well, if you’re going to do a tour you have to do the best tour that’s going out around the country,’” said May, calling from St. Louis. “It was either this or ‘Wicked,’ which I’m not going to be in, so this has worked out just great.”
May portrays the kind German Capt. Friedrich Muller, who takes care of the story’s main character Joey, which is, you guessed it, a horse enlisted to fight for the English in World War I.
“Everything about this show sounds crazy,” May laughed. “It was originally a children’s book and then the National Theater of England got their hands on it.”
Joey is caught in enemy crossfire and ends up serving both sides of the war before landing in no man’s land. The horse’s young owner Albert enlists in the army to find his horse and bring him home. The story is a remarkable tale of courage, loyalty and friendship.
After seeing a West End production of “War Horse,” director Steven Spielburg turned the play into a 2011 feature film. For anyone who saw the movie, the notion of the horse-centric production going to the stage seems absurd. However, life-sized puppets created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company pulls off the feat bringing breathing, galloping and charging horses to the stage.
In fact, the 120-pound Joey puppet, which is controlled by three people, features an aluminum frame along the spine that allows the horse to be ridden.
“The closest thing we have to it would be ‘Lion King,’ but this is more realistic,” May said. “‘Lion King’ is a wonderful fairy tale, if you will, and this a story that’s very real. It’s a wonderful anathema for peace. It’s like the British bloody version of Lassie. The intricate puppeteering that goes into this, it’s so theatrical and unbelievable. The second the adult Joey appears on stage every night, regardless of what city we’re in, there is this gasp from the audience.”
Perhaps it could be May gasping during the upcoming “War Horse’ shows. Not only will it mark the former Great Lakes Theater Associate Artistic Director’s return to Northeast Ohio, a place he called home for 12 years, but also his personal debut in the Palace Theatre.
“When I’m on stage in the Palace it’ll be mostly a happy feeling of, ‘Hey guys, look what I’m doing,’” May said. “There will also be a slight bittersweet feel that goes along with it. We work so hard in an area and you plug away and ultimately the answer is you have to leave. While that’s probably the way things go in life, it’s also sort of like, come on, we couldn’t have done this to begin with? I guess you can’t. You just have to move on.”