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Published: Sunday, 7/16/2006

Epic 'Rings' worth seeing

BY CHRISTOPHER RAWSON
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

TORONTO - Don't believe everything you read. In spite of the assertion in a recent news story about the earlier-than-expected closing Sept. 3 of The Lord of the Rings that the show was generally trashed by critics, there are those who have had many good things to say.

To them, add me.

There's no question that we saw a much better show in June than the initial wave of critics did in March, because much that has been said about LOTR is absolutely true. It is indeed gargantuan, with 48 people on stage (the 55 cast members include understudies), and at $27 million Canadian (more than $24 million U.S.), it is very probably the most expensive stage show ever, beyond even those epics at the Roman Coliseum or Hitler's Nuremberg. As you'd expect, it is technically very complex. So the show doubtless opened stiff.

Of course, I'm not entirely unbiased. I did take 80-some people to see it, two-thirds of them critics (the other third their guests), so I was certainly rooting for it to succeed and distressed to hear it was closing Sept. 3.

What I found in Toronto was nothing like the bloated, failed musical some critics described, but a largely successful (if overlong) play, an epic drama, rich in music, excitingly designed, adequately plotted and acted, inventively staged, and atmospherically scored.

This is an important distinction: In LOTR, the characters do not break into song in the conventional musical mode. Instead, music seeps up naturally and organically out of Tolkien's magical story. If you think back on the novels, you'll recall there are a lot of songs, as would naturally be true in an antique, epic parable written by a great scholar of Old English and medieval literature. Hobbits dance, because Hobbits do; Galadriel sings, because that's the elvish way; and music naturally swells up out of the rituals and celebrations, meditations and crises with which the story is rife.

Music begins in the pre-show, a Hobbit celebration of dancing and releasing fireflies, charmingly bumptious and unaffected. Then the show proper begins with a giant circle, like a magician's orb, in which we see the backstory of Bilbo, Gollum, and the Ring. It's 10 minutes into the show before Gandalf appears in the Shire, setting Frodo, Sam, and their friends on a journey that will not be the simple "there and back again" affair Sam expects. And it's 14 minutes before we come to the first identifiable song.

Yet there feels like there's music throughout. The pervasive score is a blend of A.R. Rahman, best known for Bombay Dreams, and the Finnish folk group Varttina, under the musical supervision of Christopher Nightingale. It has that echoing, Cirque du Soleil, New-Agey feel, with vague overtones of Celtic, folk, mythic, Greek, you name it. It supports without taking over, letting the story, the characters and especially the wonderfully inventive settings tell the tale.

In the book by Shaun McKenna and director Matthew Warchus, Tolkien's elaborate plot is pruned, of course, but the Tolkien savants I've talked with are gratified that the stage show is closer to the books than was Peter Jackson's movie trilogy. Actually, a little less fidelity would let it move more quickly.

The show's greatest delights are visual: elves floating through the air in Rivendell, the cold vertical shapes of Isengaard, towers of glitter in the Mines of Moria, the giant tree of Lothlorien, maidens in sparkling samite, puppetry, stilt-walking and that preternatural eye of Sauron, looking forth from Mordor when Frodo dons the Ring. A forest of branches curls out from the stage around the front of the audience, and in the second intermission, even the floor of the auditorium seems to move with a pattern of light, as though we were all equally involved in the fellowship's journey.

The set constantly surprises and delights. Undergirding it is a giant revolve with a variety of internal platforms, such that mountains and caves, crags and valleys rise and fall deftly.

Sure, it's hokum, but it's great hokum. I'm especially impressed that at key moments a wind effect buffets the audience, something that no one bothered to do at the obvious point in, for example, Miss Saigon.

Yes, there's acting, too. Brent Carver's Gandalf seems faint, but Rick McMillan's Saruman is sufficiently creepy. Michael Therriault's Gollum is the flashiest performance, all slime, whine, and wriggle. But the heart of the matter is the duo of James Love and Peter Howe, Frodo and Sam, our stalwart representatives among the craggy heroes of myth.

As evidence of improvement, what we saw was three hours and 20 minutes, including two intermissions - relatively brisk beside the longer times initially reported. But as I say, it's still too long. You could easily cut 20 minutes, maybe 30, and improve what remains.

Further cuts and improvements will have to await next year's intended London production. If I were a Tolkien fan or collector of unusual stage epics, and if I were near Toronto in the next two months, I wouldn't miss it.

"Lord of the Rings" continues at the Princess of Wales Theatre through Sept. 3; call 1-800-461-3333 or visit www.lotr.com.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Christopher Rawson is the Post-Gazette's theater critic.

Contact him at: crawson@post-gazette.com.



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