Advance coverage has talked up the cast of 70, the 40-ton set and the $24 million pricetag, making it the most expensive musical ever mounted in North America. So it's gratifying to report that in its elaborate design and massive scale, "The Lord of the Rings" channels all that investment into an imposing, often impressive visual and aural spectacle.

Advance coverage has talked up the cast of 70, the 40-ton, triple-turntable set with 17 elevators, the 500 pieces of armor and 150 weapons, not to mention the $24 million pricetag, making it the most expensive musical ever mounted in North America. So it’s gratifying to report that in its elaborate design and massive scale, “The Lord of the Rings” channels all that investment into an imposing, often impressive visual and aural spectacle. Too bad this respectful but somewhat arduous trudge through Middle-earth never summons comparable resources in the storytelling department.

To be fair, co-writers Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus (who also directed) and the mainly British creative team may have set themselves a self-defeating task, coming in after Peter Jackson’s film trilogy delivered arguably the most complete and passionate retelling imaginable of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga.

But where every frame of Jackson’s films conveyed awed enchantment with the source material and its invented mythology, the mega-musical (premiering in Toronto before a planned spring 2007 bow in London) is an emotionally hollow behemoth intently focused on ticking off its storyboard checklist. It hurtles through 1,000 pages of plot soup without pausing to investigate the heart of the beloved tale or its multispecies characters.

Tolkien fanatics already versed in the story should guarantee an audience on both sides of the pond. Others (including most musical-theater aficionados) likely will remain indifferent to or confused by this saga of short people burdened by power jewelry, which in this episodic rendering lacks clarity, an emotional center and a fluid narrative engine.

Despite the efforts of its busy but anonymous cast, striding purposefully around the spinning stage for close to four hours, the quest story fashioned by Warchus and McKenna neglects to build dramatic momentum or even to delineate clearly its central mission.

The decision to stage the story as a musical seems almost arbitrary given that the songs add so little. “Bombay Dreams” composer A.R. Rahman and Finnish folk ensemble Varttina have attempted to create a score that reflects the story’s mythological flavor more than traditional musical-theater modes. But only a few songs have a narrative shape or function, let alone fully developed melodies; the rest seem like new age symphonia.

The plodding first act, especially, is stuffed with musical filler, starting with a pre-show in which frolicking hobbits skip about the Shire netting fireflies. It’s tough to say what’s more daunting here: the reams of exposition or the surfeit of faux-Celtic ditties evoking Merrie Olde England. There’s even a hoedown to get through, but mercifully, its fiddle-diddle-hi-ho lyrics are mostly drowned out by the blasting orchestra.

The overload of twee jollity eventually subsides as the show settles into a dark mood, embracing the tenebrous nature of Tolkien’s shadowland menace. The spectacle is most arresting in its more lugubrious flourishes: the ghoulish Black Riders on their Julie Taymor-style puppet horses; the giant spider; the fire-breathing Balrog, spewing thunderous noise and wind and black confetti over the entire theater.

In this scene and elsewhere, set designer Rob Howell (who also did the lavishly detailed costumes) has made “LOTR” into something approaching an environmental production, with the gnarled branches of his storybook frame extending beyond the stage. Likewise, the complex network of thatched beams in Paul Pyant’s industrial lighting scheme constantly pierces the smoky darkness to create a majestic cathedral effect.

The greatest logistical challenge to the creatives was staging Tolkien’s battle scenes. While the marauding Orcs can’t rival Jackson’s digital magic, the choice to eschew war songs and opt instead for stylized, balletic presentation (Peter Darling did the choreography) and urgent, drum-heavy underscore feels right. In the Battle of Helm’s Deep, in particular, the rotating rise and fall of the stage’s various platforms is used to excellent effect to depict a fortress being scaled.

In its deadly serious tone, distinctly 1980s-style bloat and bombast and banner-waving call to arms, “LOTR” at times recalls “Les Miserables.” But its solemnity is undercut by involuntary detours into Monty Python territory, with clunky dialogue and characters that produce an unintended comic effect — an envoy of dark lord Sauron awkwardly resembles Tim the Enchanter, while the bearded Ents are like ZZ Top on stilts.

But the show’s real problem is lack of depth. None of the characters is brought vividly to life, least of all hobbit hero Frodo, whose odyssey to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom gets lost amid the narrative clutter. James Loye is plucky and sincere in the role, but he undersells the ringbearer’s torment, the tremendous, debilitating weight of Frodo’s task. (Height issues are well handled by casting shortish actors as hobbits and dwarves and taller actors wearing built-up shoes as the humans, wizards and elves, who levitate gracefully through the air of their forest domain, Lothlorien.)

While Gandalf gets the big final solo bow, that seems dictated more by Brent Carver’s Broadway pedigree than the character’s centrality. He seems barely more pivotal to the action than the interchangeable hobbits Merry (Dylan Roberts) and Pippin (Owen Sharpe). Carver’s wizard is a kindly, earnest fellow, but he lacks the gravitas and authority the role should entail.

Noble warrior Strider/Aragorn (Evan Buliung) and his half-elvish love Arwen (Carly Street) both seem colorless, while in her diva moment, singing power ballad “Wonder,” Rebecca Jackson Mendoza as elvish lady of the wood Galadriel is forced to compete for attention with her antler-like headgear and a spindly, overhanging scenic element that looks like the claw in those Skill Tester novelty machines.

Only Michael Therriault as the scene-stealing Gollum makes a strong, memorably creepy impression, waging schizophrenic internal warfare between his good and bad sides and slinking about like he’s stepped straight out of a German Expressionist horror movie.

Mostly, the characters are dwarfed by the mechanics of this gargantuan show, the chief exception being Sam, engagingly played by Peter Howe. Particularly in the third act, which belatedly acquires some dramatic muscle, Sam’s fearlessness born of loyalty and love for his friend Frodo suggests the emotional texture missing elsewhere.

In the gentle, folky “Now and for Always,” in which Sam and Frodo sing of their nostalgia for the Shire, the show captures, more precisely than anywhere else, the spirit of a story that reflected Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches of WWI. In an uncharacteristically intimate moment for an entertainment that’s all about noise and power and size, the song sweetly and evocatively yearns for a nonmechanized, bucolic world of simple pleasures and stories.

The Lord of the Rings

Princess of Wales Theater, Toronto; 1,966 seats; C$125 $108 top

Production

A Kevin Wallace and Saul Zaentz presentation in association with David & Ed Mirvish and Michael Cohl of a musical in three acts with music by A.R. Rahman and Varttina, with Christopher Nightingale, book and lyrics by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus, based on the trilogy of books by J.R.R. Tolkien. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Musical director, Rick Fox. Choreography, Peter Darling.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Rob Howell; lighting, Paul Pyant; sound, Simon Baker; musical supervisor, Nightingale; orchestrations, Nightingale, Rahman, Varttina; moving image direction, Gray Circle; Tolkien creative consultant, Laurie Battle; special effects designer, Gregory Meeh; illusion and magic effects, Paul Kieve; associate choreographer, Rob Tannion; circus skills specialist, Alex Frith; fight director, Terry King; production stage manager, John Gray. Opened March 23, 2006. Reviewed March 19. Running time: 3 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Frodo Baggins - James Loye Sam Gamgee - Peter Howe Rosie Cotton - Kristin Galer Gandalf - Brent Carver Gaffer Gamgee - Sanders Whiting Widow Rumble - Susan Dunstan Pippin - Owen Sharpe Merry - Dylan Roberts Elranien - Monique Lund Saruman - Richard McMillan Barliman Butterbur - Shawn Wright Bill Ferny - Patrick McManus Strider - Evan Buliung Elrond Halfelven - Victor A. Young Arwen Evenstar - Carly Street Bilbo Baggins - Cliff Saunders Gimli - Ross Williams Legolas - Gabriel Burrafato Boromir - Dion Johnstone Gollum - Michael Therriault Haldir - Fraser Walters Galadriel - Rebecca Jackson Mendoza Treebeard - Shawn Knight Theoden - ... Kerry Dorey Eowyn - Ayrin Mackie Lord of the Nazgul - Don Gough

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