Pricey prod'n will have a March 23 opening

TORONTO — With rare exceptions, producers like to keep the media as far away from their rehearsals as possible. And the higher the stakes, the greater the level of secrecy.

That conventional wisdom was turned upside down Dec. 12 when Kevin Wallace invited 150 journalists to watch six scenes from the upcoming stage version of “The Lord of the Rings,” which begins previews Feb. 2 at the Princess of Wales Theater prior to a March 23 opening.

“It was essentially to get the core message out that we know what we’re doing here and that this creative team we’ve gathered together has truly found the way to bring Tolkien to the stage,” is how Wallace explained his unconventional action.

What made this especially daring was the fact that “Lord of the Rings” is a show that relies heavily on a spectacular physical production. With a C$27 million ($23.4 million) budget, a cast of 55 and a 40-ton set that consists of three interconnected turntables with 17 lifts, not to mention numerous special effects, it took courage to offer up the work under fluorescent lights with the cast in sweatpants and T-shirts.

Wallace insists he did this deliberately to focus on the true nature of the adaptation by Shaun McKenna and director Matthew Warchus.

“This is a hybrid piece of text, music and spectacle,” Wallace explains. “The spectacle is there to serve the humanity of the story, which is ultimately about the emotional intensity these characters can generate.”

The half-dozen sequences selected were evenly balanced between intimate and large-scale.

Tony Award winner Brent Carver, starring as the wizard Gandalf, radiated the emotional intensity he is known for, and young British actor James Loye brought the same kind of commitment to his scenes as the questing Frodo.

Another standout was Carly Street as Arwen. A young Toronto performer whose credits have been mainly in alternative productions, Street commanded attention from the crowd with her striking looks and burnished singing voice.

The music of A.R. Rahman (“Bombay Dreams”) and the Finnish group Varttina has been woven by orchestrator Chris Nightingale into a unique sound that samples elements of everything from primal folk ballads to works of near-symphonic texture.

And choreographer Peter Darling (“Billy Elliot”) has evolved a style of movement that elevates stage combat into something halfway between pagan ritual and modern dance.

The crowd of media packed into the drafty film studio in the city’s East End, where the show is rehearsing, were pleased with what they saw. Comments in print the next day featured descriptions like “touching,” “exciting” and “fantastic.”

Wallace is happy with how ticket sales have been going. “We just passed the C$12 million mark, and we’re noticing a sudden surge in single tickets as people suddenly realize the first preview is only eight weeks away.

“My ambition,” he continues “is to open with C$17 million or C$18 million,” which would come in just slightly behind the previous record Canadian advance of C$20 million for “The Lion King” in 2000.

That show ran four years, and while Wallace is unwilling to make any similar predictions for “The Lord of the Rings,” he confidently states: “We have a huge momentum building toward the opening. The world will be looking toward Toronto on March 23.”

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