The world premiere stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," now playing in the Princess of Wales Theatre, cost $25 million to make, has a spectacular floor with 17 moveable platforms, stars nearly 60 actors and has three audiences to please:
There are the people who hang on to every word of Tolkien's massive 1,200-page epic. The fans who made Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning trilogy a $3 billion worldwide wonder. And the average theatergoer who wants to see a spectacle, but who wouldn't know a hobbit from a horse.
In trying to please everyone and stay true to an original vision of a "hybrid of text, physical theater, music and spectacle," the production lost depth and is, at best, an outline of the original story with songs and impressive sets.
"The Lord of the Rings" is Tolkien's complex fantasy of good vs. evil in Middle-earth. Frodo, a diminutive humanlike creature called a hobbit, is trusted with taking the ring that holds unimaginable evil to Mount Doom where it can be destroyed. Helping him on his journey are the wizard Gandalf and a fellowship that includes his loyal friend Sam and the heroic Strider (who is really Aragorn, the man destined to be king).
Tolkien fans, understanding the epic scope of his work, were forgiving about the liberties taken by Jackson when he scaled back the story for his movies. They'll definitely have to give the same consideration here. If Jackson and his co-screenwriters kept the meat of Tolkien's story, then this stage production adapted by Shaun McKenna and director Matthew Warchus is a skeleton of his work that is very difficult to follow.
Despite that bare-bones narrative, it's still nearly four hours long, including two intermissions. Here is what complicates matters: Even though the production is too long, it isn't long enough to do justice to even a stripped-down version of Tolkien's epic. It's a no-win situation.
It would have helped if the acting and songs were memorable and fleshed out the characters or story, but they're not.
The songs, in fact, are a problem. There is a fine line between being whimsical and trite, and these songs fall to the latter. "The road goes on, ever on," one repeats (the words relate to the song -- and production -- as well). And as the hobbits sing "take a hey, take a ho," you can't help but recall the Seven Dwarfs singing "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go."
A grand musical number that can only be called a hobbit-hoedown is beautifully choreographed with wonderful acrobatic feats centering around the use of benches. It would be perfect in the happy land of the Shire, but is ill-advised as it stands in the play, set at a darker time in the Prancing Pony as the deadly Nozgul hunt the hobbits.
And does it need to be said that having the sad and perverse character Gollum sing is a bad idea?
This all makes for a good argument to remove the songs and add more narrative. It may seem an illogical thought considering this production is partly a "musical," but the "musical" idea is a thought worthy of reconsidering as well.
The play starts off promisingly enough -- even before it begins. As the audience filters in to the intimate Princess of Wales, birds are chirping and hobbits merrily go about their business on the stage and spill out into the seats.
Chatting, singing and moseying about the Shire, the good-natured creatures delighted the audience, especially when trying to capture "fireflies" flitting about the theater. The audience would sigh loudly when they missed one; then applaud vivaciously when one was captured in a net that kept growing larger.
An extravagant song and dance number, the best in the show because it does well by the hobbits' cheerful dispositions, merges into the start of the play. A giant ring at center stage is illuminated as characters in shadow act out a Cliffs Notes-type narration of the story that does well in giving the audience the background to get started.
From there, many characters appear, but outside of Frodo, Sam, Gandalf and Strider, the others barely make an impression -- if you can even tell who they are. Who is Merry and who is Pippin? I delighted in their repartee, but couldn't tell them apart. Was that lovely lady Eowyn of Rohan walking across the stage proclaiming her need to join the war? It was, but better to remove her and use those few minutes of disconnected narrative to fill in somewhere else.
Since the tormented Boromir, one of the fellowship's human warriors, had little to do before he died, his big death scene lacked an emotional punch and felt like an excuse to have Strider sing over his dead body.
That's not to say there aren't some great things about the production. Rob Howell's set design is showcased by an elaborate web of tree bark that frames the stage and creeps into the audience and over the theater boxes.
The battle of Helm's Deep is an example of the perfect meshing of sight, sound and production. It was great fun watching the menacing orcs, the soldiers of the evil Saruman, bounce across the stage on short stilts. The ents, the wise, old talking trees, are envisioned as giant wizardlike creatures who look a lot like the bearded gents from ZZ Top. Standing on stilts that jettison them to the top of the theater, these elongated characters are a knockout.
But the overall acting is uninspiring and not of the caliber expected of a major Toronto production. Only Michael Therriault as Gollum is wonderful and that can't be said without acknowledging the fact that his performance owes a heavy debt to the extraordinary job Andy Serkis did in creating Gollum/Smeagol in Jackson's movies.
Many of the negatives may very well be a product of the intense editing of the production, which has been happening since the play clocked in at five hours during previews in February. Would Strider be heroic and not just a guy who speaks more lines than the others, if his performance was intact? Would Eowyn's feisty spirit and independence shine through? Would the members of the Fellowship be drawn out and distinguishable?
Most likely they would. Unfortunately, you can't see a director's cut of a stage production; nor the deleted scenes on DVD to show us how it was originally envisioned. Somehow that needs to be done before this production can become the one ring to lead them into the theaters.
The Lord of the Rings
Review: Two stars (Out of four)
Now on stage at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto
Showtimes through June 26 are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday; and 1 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $99 to $125 (Canadian). Call (416) 872-1212 or (800) 461-3333. Additional info: www.lotr.com