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TOY MINES MAGIC IN MIDDLE EARTH

Theater review

The Hobbit ****

Fantasy performed by the Theater of Youth, directed by Meg Quinn. Runs through Nov. 7.

There's a defining moment in Theater of Youth's production of "The Hobbit." The lights come up on the dungeon in which 13 dwarfs are being held hostage. It could have been made of traditional, vertical iron bars like every other jail, but this is the Middle Earth dungeon designed by TOY's Kenneth Shaw, so these "iron bars" have a complex spherical design.

This epic production is chock full of such first-class touches and brings J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel to "Lord of the Rings" to life in wondrous fashion.

"The Hobbit" is a production of marvelous contradictions. It's an ensemble piece, yet each character has an individual identity and a fantasy world with sentiments of fear, anticipation and longing that are familiar to every child. The production is tactically elaborate yet strategically simple and children are invited to suspend disbelief. As a result, the production achieves the dual goals of pleasing aficionados by being true to the book yet easily understood by those new to the tale.

Director Meg Quinn and her talented cast keep the pace lively and provide just the right combination of suspense, humor and action.

TOY has often been charmingly low-tech, but here the top-notch design team has pulled every arrow out of their quivers, using projection, puppetry, and other effects that had the kids on the edge of their seats and rapt throughout the 150-minute production. The show is recommended for age 8 and above, as there are some frightening scenes of goblins and battles, but Michael, a 5-year-old in front of us, garbed in a hobbit hood, was wide-eyed throughout.

Shaw's labyrinthine set design is exquisite, with multilayered borders suggesting the trip into Middle Earth. Brian Cavanaugh's myriad lighting techniques expertly create the many scenes and moods of this magical world.

Shaw also designed the luxurious costumes worthy of grand opera and Dave Bova's wigs and makeup are superb. You won't confuse an elf with a dwarf here, as all of the creatures are wonderfully distinct. Gandalf's garb is particularly impressive, adding to Roger Keicher's commanding performance.

Chester Popiolkowski's score is a gem, alternating between the lilting Celtic-inspired music of the shire and the dark dissonances of the world beyond.

But all of the trappings would be for naught without characters to bring the story to life, and as Bilbo Baggins, Tim Newell is a fussy delight. "Adventures just make you late for dinner," he says. In Newell's hands, Bilbo's cowardice and courage are equally convincing.

There are many fine moments in the show, including dramatic battle scenes which are show stoppers, a wonderful battle of wits with riddles, and three delightful trolls who argue like old women and bat each other over the head Three Stooges-style.

"The Hobbit" beautifully illustrates two secrets of TOY'S success. First, its refusal to "dumb down" the story or spend less attention to detail for its young audience, knowing full well that this may be a child's first, or most memorable, theatrical experience.

Quinn also acknowledges her audience's other influences. She knows that "The Lord of the Rings" film trilogy was a huge hit and leverages Patricia Gray's script into an evocative yet unique theatrical experience that is true to Tolkien's original work.

Thanks to TOY, you don't have to go to the ends of the earth for high quality entertainment for your family. Just Middle Earth.