The hour of the Shirefolk is at hand, my little precious ones, and it is you and you alone who will save The Lord of the Rings. And let's be clear right from the beginning -- if you think you are going to see a musical, you're barking up the wrong Ent.
Doubtless it was the significant cultural cachet of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy that attracted the creative team led by British producer Kevin Wallace to think that there was still something to be had from this sprawling allegory of battling Allied Armies, Ents, Orcs and Elves and that it should be brought to us right on the heals of the films -- as if to ride a wave of popularity that still hadn't peaked. And maybe that's true, but as I stated in my lead, it's those diehard Tolkien fans that better be willing to buy a ticket to this show and form the hardcore of its audience base or else the Black Riders have got it for sure.
You know you've got a problem when Gollum (his real name is Smeagol) becomes the star of the show. Played wonderfully by Stratford regular Michael Therriault, Gollum is a kind of schizophrenic Caliban accompanying the little Munchkins, excuse me, Hobbits, on their quest to deliver the Ring. He never really appears until the second act but when he does our eyes are riveted on him and we eagerly await his return every time he leaves the action.
You also realize this show is not a musical when you observe that the group is led in their great quest (until his unfortunate demise at the end of the first act) by the good wizard, Gandalf, played by Tony Award (for the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman) winner Brent Carver. If ever there was a role that cried out for a song that asks us to believe in good over evil and be ready to march into hell for a heavenly cause, it is this one. Does Gandalf have a number in the first act that then finds itself with a worthy reprise later on? No ma'am, he does not.
But it would be a mistake to think that the score is nothing more than glorified incidental music. It is, in its essence and function, like a grand film score that underlies the action throughout and rises to some magnificent moments as it supports the dramatic action occurring on the stage. The ethno-musicological preoccupation by the creators in trying to make us believe they are creating some kind of new musical vocabulary that envelopes us in Middle Earth is a bit overwrought, however. In fact, the most effective musical moment of the evening is a simple folk song rendered beautifully by Frodo (James Loye) and Sam (Peter Howe) when they find themselves lost in the forest.
There is a wise old theatre axiom that says, basically, if a play is poorly written, it may be enhanced and indeed sometimes saved by the skills of talented actors. And conversely, poorly trained or untalented actors many times may not diminish a good script that is so well written it is said to be "actor proof." But seldom, if ever, is it the case that a poorly written play with only prosaic acting may be saved by the talents of scenic, costume, and lighting design. In the case of The Lord of the Rings I'm not so sure.
LOTR is a magnificent technical achievement, albeit much of it derivative. The swirling end of the first act looks like it was lifted right out of Slava's Snow Show while the comparisons to Cirque du Soleil are misplaced. The work does not come up to the level of a Franco Dragone or a Robert Lepage. Having said that, Rob Howell's forest that covers the proscenium arch and spills out into the house is a worthy introduction to Middle Earth as are the wandering Hobbits that catch fireflies in a pre-show mime that just delights the kids to no end. Gregory Meeh and Paul Kieve head up a technical crew that delivers some terrific special effects and illusions that are solely the purview of live theatre as opposed to film.
At the conclusion of The Lord of The Rings I asked my partner as we passed out of the theatre: "What did Gollum do with the Ring?" It seemed to pass so quickly that we hardly noticed. The all powerful Ring, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, seemed to have just piddled away without much of a comment. Perhaps that's the problem with this production. After all was said and done, after all of the struggle and the bombast, what are we really left with? Somewhere in there we just seem to have lost sight of the story somehow. I've heard there is a bumper sticker currently popular in the Washington, D.C. area that says: "Forget it Frodo, Bush has the Ring". Oh, dear.