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Frodo gets lost

Frodo gets lost

Lotr

The three-and-a-half-hour stage version of The Lord of the Rings, now running in Toronto, has Elvish music, lots of armpit stabbing, guys on stilts, and a too-short wizard. It's quite a sight to see, but don't expect to be moved

Frodo and Sam sing! Yes, The Lord of the Rings has now become a stage extravaganza, a $20 million-plus production running in Toronto with an eye to heading to Broadway. No, there's nothing overtly gay about The Lord of the Rings, but in the elementary school sense, what could be more "gay" than singing elves, crossing swords, and the story of two rivals fighting for the loyalty of a handsome young man with rare taste in jewelry? (Naturally, Gollum, the less attractive one, winds up insane and Mount Doomed.)

A friend in Toronto, who wishes to remain anonymous because of the means by which he saw the show before its official opening, filed this report for The Advocate about The Lord of the Rings onstage:

All is not well in the Shire.

When the stage musical version of The Lord of the Rings was announced I'm sure that many people said, "Oh, great, dancing hobbits and a chorus line of orcs and ents." The hobbits do dance a kind of Irish jig a few times, a kind of Frodo-see-doh, but there are thankfully no dancing orcs, ents, or other creatures. They just run and jump around a lot.

People probably also said, "How could they possibly put it onstage?"

The answer is, basically, they can't.

Is it a success? No. Is it any good? In some parts, yes. Is it the first $27 million flop? Who knows?

It's not an excruciatingly embarrassing musical like so many that have come before, loaded with unintentional laughs and campy hoots, like Carrie. It's just basically a snooze. With moments that will have critics searching their thesauri to cleverly trash it (I picture "Bored of the Rings" as one possible headline), there are so many problems that the only honest emotions generated by 50 actors, 18 musicians, countless backstage people, lots of strobe lights, and three and a half hours are disappointment, confusion, and occasional boredom.

Oh, you can see the $27 million, after a fashion. The lighting is great, the costumes expensive, the sets and effects impressive. It's really loud. Wind blows, cymbals crash, drums beat. Confetti is blown all over the audience. There is an attempt to do something that's never been done outside of opera, which is to tell a sweeping epic story with music (most of it background, like movie scoring). It's nothing like a traditional musical, which is just as well. There are some cool creatures, but nothing as impressive as anything in The Lion King.

The story is so complicated to begin with that we necessarily get the Cliff Notes version, which is still too complicated for one show. Lots of time and awkward exposition is spent explaining stuff about all the names, histories, races, places, etcetera, and it must surely baffle those in the audience who come in unfamiliar with it. Since I know the movies and books pretty well, I could keep up, but I immediately knew what was being cut (a lot), which distracted me from becoming involved with what was actually being presented.

Figuring out the various names of the characters (many of them have two or three) also gets pretty tedious. Is he Strider now, or Aragorn? Son of Ara-who? Who cares?

And because they were straining to tell as much of the story as possible, they didn't clarify what was actually important. For example, in Leonard Bernstein's Candide they cut the living daylights out of the original story but preserved its essence and made a very complex story simple, so you cared about the central characters. Here you want to care about Frodo, and occasionally you do, but not because of what the writers have provided. You simply remember how much you cared about Elijah Wood.

The focus is split between the hobbits and Aragorn, who here is presented as a standard warrior hero who speaks vaguely Shakespearean English and holds his sword aloft, like a romance novel cover model. You don't care about the romance between him and the elf maiden, Arwen (but you didn't care about them in the movies, either, so it must be a built-in problem). Other characters come and go and you get a vague sense of who they are, sort of. But most get lost in the noise.

I wonder if the uninitiated will have any earthly idea of what exactly the ring is, why it's such a big deal, and why they must destroy it. They will probably give up and flee by intermission.

The music is hard to evaluate, since this is probably the first musical where 90% of the lyrics are completely unintelligible. A lot of them are in Elvish, which is sometimes more understandable than the English lyrics. There are lots of interesting and sometimes beautiful chants, shouts, wails, and choruses, like the Bombay version of Les Miserables, but the music doesn't really add much to the show, other than providing some emotional moments that the script fails to. Arwen has an Elvish power ballad, like Celine Dion at her most bizarre.

There is a grand total of one good and understandable song, a ballad between Frodo and Sam about how much they miss the Shire.

One of the composers is a group from Finland, which may account for the fact that the elf queen, Lady Galadriel, wears a costume and headdress that looks like Bjork at an awards show.

The special effects are mostly good, but it seems like they ran out of ideas about halfway through and started repeating themselves. A few effects are very clever and threaten to make your jaw drop, and then don't. The orcs, which were vividly menacing in the movies (and the imagination), are here played by athletic actors who run around on crutches, which has the unfortunate effect of making them look like they're competing in the Special Olympics. The ents, the tree creatures, are bearded men who look like ZZ Top on stilts, and you're more interested in whether they're going to fall than in anything they say.

There are 17 elevating stage platforms in a circle that go up and down, rotate, and are probably an insurance liability nightmare. They are, next to Frodo and Sam, the busiest performers onstage. After initially impressing, their repetition wears out their welcome pretty fast. I thought of one of my high school theater directors whom we had nicknamed "Mr. Platform."

The staging is a mess. For such a big production, much of it is played on the flat stage, and the huge proscenium sometimes swallows up the actors. Maybe it was an attempt to make the hobbits actually look small; but then, everyone else is roughly their height. Much is static and boring, the pacing both fast and sluggish.

The battle scenes threaten to get unintentional laughs--they go on way too long, everyone just runs around and screams a lot, stage-stabbing each other in the armpits, and most of the time you don't know who is fighting who or why it matters. Many of the actors are directed to move like Riverdancers stricken with polio. Sometimes they are actually swinging their swords at the air at imaginary beings, and the sound effects are working overtime to make you think lots of creatures are there, even though they actually aren't. You keep wondering when they're going to show up.

At one point the stage is covered with what looks like a giant Hefty bag, and it writhes and shakes and people emerge from it. Recalling The Return of the King, I realized that it was an attempt at showing Aragorn resurrect long-dead Ghosts for battle, but it just looked and sounded like a bunch of people trapped in a big old Hefty bag.

The actors all try, but no one stands out and really connects with the audience except the creature Gollum, who has the showiest part and makes the most of it by throwing himself all over the stage, screaming and wailing. He must need a stiff drink and a massage after every performance.

Gandalf, the wizard, is probably the center of the story, and as Brent Carver (Kiss of the Spider Woman) plays him, he seems to be just going along for the ride. He has no vocal power, weight, or authority. The fact that he's not much taller than the hobbits doesn't help. He's a wizard because he's dressed like one, not because of anything that comes from the performance.

Maybe this Gandalf is a closeted gay man who just wants to leave Middle Earth and move to Key West.

The main problem for me was that you're never emotionally involved with what's going on onstage like you should be in a show like this. They haven't focused the show to its essence, so it wouldn't matter how much they had cut because you really care about what is there. Frodo and Sam are OK, but the memory of the movie characters and how much you cared about them gets in the way.

Maybe with more performances they will get it. I hope so, because someone spent a fortune on this, I hate to see all that money go down the tubes, and I always want actors to stay employed.

But I'm glad it's not my money.

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