EDITOR’S NOTE: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 2nd Triangle Theater Review preview and Oct. 4th review, both by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/10/war-horse-will-gallop-into-durham-on-tuesday-oct-2nd-for-eight-epic-performances-at-dpac/ and http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/10/war-horse-will-wow-triangle-theatergoers-with-its-passion-and-its-ingenious-life-sized-horse-puppets/, respectively.
When the curtain rises on the critically acclaimed Royal National Theatre production of War Horse, currently dazzling Durham Performing Arts Center audiences, the villagers of a farming community in Devon, England, circa 1912, form a line along the back wall of the set; and out steps the Song Man (played by 37-year-old tenor John Milosich of Takoma Park, MD) to sing “Only Remembered,” an old Scottish hymn from the early 1800s, adapted and arranged into an anthem for War Horse by John Tams. The first verse goes:
Fading away like the stars in the morning
Losing their light in the glorious sun
Thus would we pass from this earth and its toiling
Only remembered for what we have done
The Song Man sets the play’s events in motion as he takes the sketchbook of cavalry Lieutenant James Nicholls, and hands it to James Loughlin, the actor who plays that noble officer and gentlemen and artist with such deep feeling. Throughout the play, choice selections from Nicholls’ sketchbook — as drawn by War Horse scenic and lighting designer Rae Smith — are projected overhead on a horizontal slash of a screen. They vividly recreate the pastoral vistas of Devon, circa 1912-14, and the Hell-on-Earth that was Belle France as the Guns of Autumn were just starting to roar.
John Milosich reappears frequently, throughout performances of War Horse, to sing snatches on song that succinctly express the sentiments of the crowd at key moments, underscore the emotions of a scene, and provide an audio counterpoint to the vivid drawings of Lieutenant James Nicholls and, later, shocking scenes of the world at war, accompanied by the sounds of explosions. Chameleon-like, Milosich sheds his farm clothes and dons a uniform if the song demands it.
Born in Lackawanna, NY, just outside of Buffalo, John J. Milosich grew up in the small college town of Edinboro, PA, located in northwestern Pennsylvania near Lake Erie. He says he was bitten by the theater bug in high school, after he followed his girlfriend to auditions.
“There were 13 guy parts and only 14 guys, and my cousin was the director,” Milosich chuckles. “But I still didn’t get a part…. College was when I got my first part in my first play.
“It was some rendition of Little Red Riding Hood,” he recalls. “I played the mischievous young wolf … who was all attitude and no wisdom. He got outsmarted by everyone. It was a theater for young adults, and I was shaking onstage when I went out there.”
Milosich earned his BA degree in Music: Voice from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 1998 and his MFA in Contemporary Performance from Naropa University in Boulder, CO in 2006.
Only the truth in the life we have spoken
Only the seeds that in life we have sown
These shall pass onwards when we are forgotten
Only remembered for what we have done
“A couple of years back, I picked up the accordion … and learned it for about two years,” recalls John Milosich, who was then living, teaching theater, and acting in the Washington, DC area. Then a DC colleague told him that War Horse was looking for a singer who could play accordion.
Milosich says he had to study “Learning to Plough” for the audition; and it was really, really hard. He was eventually cast as the national tour’s Song Man (Vocal). (“I only play the accordion once in the show,” sighs Milosich, and the Song Man (Instrumental), played by Nathan Koci, gets to put the mustard on “Learning to Plough.” (However, Milosich says he does get to play harmonica in one scene.)
“I think the Song Man looks at things is a very neutral light,” Milosich muses. “I think my character is a watcher of the story.”
The Song Man witnesses the half-Thoroughbred, half-draft horse colt Joey’s first skittering steps around the paddock; and smiles as Joey slowly bonds with horse-crazy 16-year-old farm boy Albert Narracott (played by Andrew Veenstra).
“The horse comes to life physically and vocally before the first word is spoken onstage,” say John Milosich. “I start singing ‘Only Remembered,’ and all the other characters come out.”
Then the Song Man commiserates with Albert’s loss two years later, when his drunken and dissolute father Ted (Todd Cerveris) sells Joey to the cavalry. The Song Man follows Albert as he runs away, and lies about his age so he can enlist in the Devon Yeomanry and go to France to try to find Joey in the midst of a murderous rain of artillery shells and lethal clouds of poison gas.
John Milosich says the Song Man is omniscient: “He sees Albert in France writing a letter. At the same time, he sees the boy’s mother and father receiving that letter and reading it back in Devon.”
Milosich adds, “The show doesn’t take sides. My character is rooting for everyone.”
He says, “The first half of the show, the horse is owned by an English family. Then Joey is captured by the Germans, and finally he finds a home with a French farm family,” before the Germans reclaim him the runaway stallion and put him back to work hauling artillery pieces.
Milosich says, while serve as a musical narrator for a series of scenes that take place in England and France before, during, and after World War I, the Song Man lifts his voice to deliver snippets of songs that underscore important moments; and the folk songs that he sings are sturdy threads that the show’s creators weave into the fabric of the play.
In addition to accentuating key moments, the Song Man forwards the story from farm to battlefield and back, and brings some light onto the stage in the dark moments, says Milosich.
To be fair and accurate — to coin a phrase – John Milosich is the Song Man (Vocal); and Nathan Koci is the Song Man (Instrumental), who accompanies Milosich on the accordion.
“I hardly knew anything about the show before I auditioned for it,” Milosich confesses, adding, “I read the book while we were rehearsing in New York.”
“In the book,” Milosich says, “the horse narrates the story. He likes or dislikes the characters, depending on how they treat him. The bad guys treat him badly; the good guys treat him kindly.”
Who’ll sing the anthem and who’ll tell the story
Will the line hold, will it scatter and run
Shall we at last be united in glory
Only remembered for what we have done
John Milosich says proudly, “We did get a chance to meet the book’s author, Michael Morpurgo, about a month into the rehearsal process. We were pushing, pushing hard; and meeting Michael Morpurgo was one of our greatest days.”
The cast was moved by Morpurgo’s reverence for the World War I vets whose stories he used in War Horse.
“He was just as good at telling those stories to us as he was in writing them in the book,” claims John Milosich. “It reminded us why we were doing what we were doing.”
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 4th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 3.5 out of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/artery/archives/2012/10/04/the-animals-have-the-advantage-in-war-horse; Oct. 4th Raleigh, NC NBC 17 “My Carolina Today” segment: http://www2.nbc17.com/lifestyles/my-carolina-today/2012/oct/04/1/war-horse-at-dpac-58738-vi-52228/; Oct. 3rd Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh review by Larissa Mount: http://raleigh.broadwayworld.com/article/BWW-Reviews-WAR-HORSE-Delights-as-it-Gallops-into-Durham-20121003#sthash.sCq5kDu0.dpbs; Oct. 3rd Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/20350247/article-REVIEW–‘War-Horse’-an-emotional-story-of-humanity, Sept. 28th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/20291704/article-The-journey-of-‘War-Horse’, Aug. 17th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/19832197/article-Broadway’s-Tony-winners–‘War-Horse-’-‘Jersey-Boys’-and-‘Million-Dollar-Quartet’-at-DPAC-this-fall and March 14th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/17824398/article-‘War-Horse’-a-feat-of-puppetry? (Note: You must register first to read these articles); Oct. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: Oct. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/10/03/2387869/review-dpacs-war-horse-is-a-hit.html; and Oct. 2nd Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel interview with Michael Stewart Allen, conducted by Madeline Hurley: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2012/10/war-horse-qa. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 2nd Triangle Theater Review preview and Oct. 4th review, both by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/10/war-horse-will-gallop-into-durham-on-tuesday-oct-2nd-for-eight-epic-performances-at-dpac/ and http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/10/war-horse-will-wow-triangle-theatergoers-with-its-passion-and-its-ingenious-life-sized-horse-puppets/, respectively.)
Durham Performing Arts Center presents WAR HORSE at 8 p.m. Oct. 5, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 6, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $24-$79.50 (including fees).
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/1732689.
VIDEO PREVIEW: http://youtu.be/iY5YMshpCcw.
The Play: http://www.raesmith.co.uk/selected_warhorse.html (set and costume designer Rae Smith’s website), http://warhorseonstage.com/tickets/us_tour (U.S. tour), http://warhorseonbroadway.com/ (on Broadway), http://warhorseonbroadway.com/ (in London), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Horse_(play) (Wikipedia), and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=488127 (Internet Broadway Database)
The Playwright: http://www.theagency.co.uk/clients/clientdisplay.html?viewListing=Mjkx (The Agency) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Stafford (Wikipedia).
Handspring Puppet Company: http://www.handspringpuppet.co.za/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handspring_Puppet_Company (Wikipedia).
Royal National Theatre: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_National_Theatre (official website).
Rae Smith: http://www.raesmith.co.uk/ (official website).
John Milosich: http://www.johnmilosich.com/ (official website).
World War I: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This interview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.