“Enough, enough. This is no time for tittle-tittle,” cries Gandalf to his band of hobbits. That’s also the view of the production team. Following the flop of its 2006 Toronto premiere run, the musical stage version of “The Lord of the Rings” has been cropped from its three hour, 45-minute running time to “just” three hours. Yet despite excising a half-hour and one intermission, this latest attempt to make spectacle respectable is brought low by one inescapable fact: it was simply the wrong book to dramatize.
Further shorn of humanizing detail from Tolkien’s elaborate original (let alone Peter Jackson’s screen trilogy), Matthew Warchus’ epic production is deadened by an overabundance of plot in the famous “one damn thing after another” vein. And there’s something depressingly defeatist about a show spoken almost totally in English — with a few departures into Elvish — that feels the need to run a two-page plot synopsis in the program.
With the story reduced to an almost pageant-like, expository parade of individual episodes played at equal dramatic weight, basic requirements like expectation, momentum, and, above all, tension evaporate.
In their place, the show displays a degree of majesty courtesy of its inventive squad of designers. Rob Howell’s costumes run from rustic hobbitry to droopy medieval sleeves for Elvish maidenhood via leather-clad Orcs leaping around on a dizzying array of sprung stilts and short crutchs. His set designs are even more impressive.
The show’s logo is made manifest in an environment of gnarled roots and branches covering the proscenium and boxes as it stretches out along the sides of the auditorium. This frames an open space dominated by the swirling, many-tiered revolve, with 17-hydraulic lifts endlessly reconfiguring the stage into any number of locations.
The hero of the evening, however, is Paul Pyant whose lighting delineates spaces, isolates dramatic moments and creates evocative moods via saturated color or star-like bulbs piercing the darkness.
Yet even he cannot inject life into the script. Although not quite rivalling the immortal line from “Pippin”: “I want to join you in your campaign against the Visigoths,” Shaun McKenna and Warchus’ leaden dialogue comes awfully close. Characters here don’t speak, they either declaim or, worse, intone platitudes. This makes engagement with them and their plights almost impossible, leaving auds little to do but sit back and watch the abundant stagecraft.
That detachment explains the applause that oddly greets the evil Orcs as they attack and kill flawed but friendly Boromir. Instead of being wrapped up in the storytelling, auds clearly are merely appreciating Peter Darling’s vividly expressive movement.
“I wonder what kind of story we’ve landed in,” says Frodo. That question might be addressed to producer Kevin Wallace and director Warchus. Their show suffers from schizophrenia, unable to make up its mind whether it’s a play or a musical.
Spoken scenes are filled, movie-style, with underscoring. With the emphasis on pulse-quickening drumming and martial power, it’s the two percussionists and five brass players who work the hardest in Richard Brown’s 17-piece band. Yet Howard Shore’s work on the movies has far greater richness and range.
Almost all the music with any dramatic resonance is unsung. One rare exception is Darling’s boisterously choreographed hoedown in the Prancing Pony inn. Enjoyable though it is, it feels like a number from a wholly different, more cheerful show. And its cue-line is a worry. “We haven’t had a song round here since I don’t know when,” is pretty close to the bone when the first real moment of musical lift-off comes 30 minutes into the show.
When not dealing in twiddly folk tunes for the hobbits, the rest of the sung score dwells in the land of Celtic mysticism — think Enya-goes-anthemic. This is given a lift by the all-too-brief appearances of Laura Michelle Kelly as Galadriel.
Momentarily overtaken by the Ring, Kelly suddenly leaps from ethereally beautiful to animalistic lust for power. Her open-throated sound has an authentic visceral thrill. Alas, that’s almost the only moment where an actor’s performance actually manages to dwarf the surrounding production.
The other exception is Michael Therriault’s Gollum. One of the holdovers from Toronto, he more than justifies the plane fare with an immensely physicalized portrayal of split loyalties.
He’s joined by James Loye’s adept but lackluster Frodo and Peter Howe, who adds spark to the better-written Sam. By contrast, Malcolm Storry has none of Ian McKellen’s twinkle and finds little with which to enrich his largely po-faced Gandalf.
Performances, however, fade beneath the might of the presentation, which attempts to divert auds with every device available to its enormous budget. That runs to impressively giant stilts for the tree-walking Ents. Yet having got the actors up there, Warchus et al don’t seem to know what to do with them. And the longer their scene proceeds, the more they resemble the Knights Who Say “Ni,” from “Monty Python’s Spamalot”… with fewer laughs.
The third act is now more fully scored than in Toronto, but when its climactic, previously balletic battle now resorts to video projection to make its effect, isn’t that a further admission of theatrical defeat?
At one point Bilbo asks, “Don’t adventures ever have an end?” With the exceptions of the Guardian and the Times (the show’s media partner), major London reviews have been largely harsh. Sunday papers have yet to run notices but it looks likely this adventure will come to an end a good deal earlier than its producers and investors wish.