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STAGE REVIEW

Middle-earth takes center stage

A 'Lord of the Rings' musical actually works. Who knew?

The friendship of Frodo (James Loye, front) and Sam (Peter Howe) gives the musical a much-needed heart.
The friendship of Frodo (James Loye, front) and Sam (Peter Howe) gives the musical a much-needed heart. (Manuel Harlan / EPO Online)

TORONTO -- At first, turning ''The Lord of the Rings" into a megamusical -- and with a budget of $23 million, the British-led Toronto production that had its world premiere last night is the most mega musical ever -- seemed like an idea only the dark lord Sauron could love.

But the specter of kitschy, can-canning hobbits that many J.R.R. Tolkien and musical-theater fans feared has not materialized. The show's international creative team has created a stage epic that is surprisingly smart and visually stunning, and does not feature Frodo singing about a few of his favorite rings.

Instead of having characters break into song to express their thoughts and feelings, the composing fellowship of India's A.R. Rahman, Finnish folk group Värttinä, and Britain's Christopher Nightingale has put together Middle-earth songs that hobbits, elves, and men sing to keep their spirits up when they miss the Shire or their loved ones or to comfort one another as they fall asleep, as well as atmospheric music that underscores the entire play. The trade-off for this classy integration of music and drama is that you won't walk out humming any of the tunes.

While ''The Lord of the Rings" leaves behind most Broadway musical conventions -- though Saruman's send-off of the orcs to capture the hobbits does conjure up a certain Wicked Witch telling her monkeys to ''Fly, fly!" -- Tolkien-heads will be pleased to know that the stage show hews very closely to the books, more so than Peter Jackson's movies, and leaves little out. Less reverent audience members will wish that more had been left behind, as the show stretches to 3 1/2 hours with two intermissions. Bilbo Baggins speaks for many when he asks, ''Don't adventures ever have an end?"

And even at this length, Frodo's journey to destroy the ''one ring to rule them all" feels rushed. The climactic scene atop Mount Doom is over before it begins, while the romance between human Aragorn and half-elf Arwen feels perfunctory. Many of the minor characters -- Éowyn, Legolas, and the dwarf Gimli -- are just outlines that you must fill in with your prior knowledge.

Writer Shaun McKenna and director Matthew Warchus have given the relationship between the ringbearer Frodo (James Loye) and his constant gardener companion, Sam (Peter Howe), the stage time it deserves, however. Their passionate friendship and platonic love, beautiful acted by the two British actors, give the show a much-needed heart, all Brokeback Mount Doom jokes aside.

Of course, their scenes are stolen by the corrupted creature Gollum, played as a rage-filled rag doll by Michael Therriault, one of Canada's best and -- now we know -- most supple actors. The character looks and sounds like the blue-tinged animation from Jackson's films but is infinitely more amazing incarnated by a real live human. (He doesn't really sing, though he does hiss a few bars.) Tony-winning actor Brent Carver, the biggest name of the production, is less comfortable as Gandalf, here a wizard who is always one spell away from the edge.

The absolute star of the show, however, is the morphing, Celtic-inspired set designed by Rob Howell, and this is likely to be the most influential element. Sections of rotating floor can rise out of the stage, almost all the way to the ceiling. The floor can shape-shift into a castle, a mountain, stairs, just about anything, while the actors roam over it and hop from one elevated platform to another like live-action Super Mario Brothers.

In the battles, as in the rest of the show, Warchus and Peter Darling, the award-winning choreographer for the London musical smash ''Billy Elliot," have chosen highly theatrical movements. The orcs, for example, are played by acrobats, who flip about marvelously on pogo-stick shoes. Other theatrical traditions are thrown in: The prologue tells the story of Gollum and Bilbo through shadow theater, the Black Riders and other evil creatures are giant puppets as in ''The Lion King," and the stilt-walking ents are straight out of Cirque du Soleil. It's a mishmash of styles that somehow pulls together in a spectacle-filled evening that will win over droves of ''Lord of the Rings" fans, but may leave the unconvinced unconvinced.

J. Kelly Nestruck is a performing-arts reporter for the National Post in Toronto.

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