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Lee Cataluna

Mililani grad gets behind moving role on Broadway

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    "War Horse," a play opening next month on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at the Lincoln Center, features life-size horse puppets that move and snort and gallop like real horses. Puppeteer Tom Lee, a 1991 graduate of Mililani High School, will be working in the back of one of the horses.

A guy from Mililani gets his first role on Broadway, and he’s playing the back end of a horse.

That’s the one-liner, but the whole story is actually quite dramatic and lovely.

The play is "War Horse," which has been in previews this week and will open next month at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at the Lincoln Center, the same theater where Hawaii’s Loretta Ables Sayre starred in "South Pacific." The play is adapted from a children’s book set in Europe during World War I. An English boy loses his beloved horse to the cavalry. Years later, the boy cannot forget his horse and sets out on a journey to find him and bring him home. It is a tear-jerker of "Old Yeller" proportions.

To bring the novel to life on the stage, the cavalry horses are exquisitely made life-size puppets that move and snort and gallop just like real horses and are strong enough to carry the actors as riders. Each horse requires three puppeteers: one to move the head and ears, a second to control the middle of the horse and the "breathing," and a third to work the hind quarters.

Tom Lee, a ’91 graduate of Mililani High School who studied theater at Carnegie Mellon University, is a director, teacher and puppeteer. He has been in other large productions in New York, including the Metropolitan Opera production of "Madama Butterfly" and at the New York Philharmonic performing live puppetry for the opera "Le Grand Macabre." Last year, he brought his own company’s production of "Ko’olau" on a tour to Hawaii, which played to enthralled audiences.

But this is his first role on Broadway.

"Though I am in the rear end of the horse, it is one of the most beautiful puppets I’ve ever worked with," Lee said. "Inside, you are strapped to a backpack, which attaches to the frame of the puppet. The horse’s body is covered with a see-through material so you can see outside the puppet while you are performing it. The puppets have working ears and tails, and we spent months not only working with the puppets, but researching horse behavior and movement for the puppetry."

Video clips of the show on the production’s website are astounding. At times, the horses seem so real, yet no real horse could be counted on to react to the actors so perfectly.

"The most difficult scenes are probably the cavalry charges involving riders, just because they demand a lot of strength and coordination," Lee said. "You can really feel if the actor riding is slightly unbalanced or off-center because you are trying to gallop the horse and move forward on the stage at the same time."

Lee is looking forward to his parents, former state Rep. Sam Lee and present state Rep. Marilyn Lee, traveling to New York this summer to see him in the show — and even if they can’t actually see him under the puppet, his name is in the credits, his picture is in the playbill and his puppetry is something to behold.

To see video of "The War Horse," go to www.war­


Lee Cataluna can be reached at lcataluna@star­adver­

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