Will “The Lord of the Rings” prove as golden onstage as many in the theater biz and tourism industry hope?

The pricey production opened Thursday night, but the jury is still out as the show divided critics while producers tout high interest by nonregular theatergoers.

The highly anticipated stage production of “LOTR” finally faced critics from around the world, and the response to the C$28 million ($24 million) tuner, widely touted as the most expensive legit show in history, was decidedly divided.

There were a few critical partisans ready to praise everything about the Middle-earth musical, but many others were less favorably inclined.

While John McKay of the Canadian Press exulted, “There isn’t a weak link in all the elements,” Ben Brantley in the New York Times sneered, “Everything winds up lost, including plot, character and the patience of most ordinary theatergoers.”

The majority of the influential North American notices were mixed to negative, especially those from major daily critics in New York, Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Thrust of virtually all these reviews can be summed up by Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press, who called the show “lavish but disappointing … a case of imagination overwhelmed by complexity.”

David Rooney in Daily Variety zeroed in on what many felt was the central problem when he called it “an emotionally hollow behemoth.”

London critics were generally more favorably disposed toward the project, which has an all-British creative team. Sam Marlowe of the Times of London called it “an intoxicating enchantment” despite “significant disappointments,” but Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph pronounced himself “bored of the Rings.”

What will all this mean for the show’s future, not only in Toronto but the rest of the world?

Producer Kevin Wallace remained “very optimistic.”

“We are definitely going to open in London in 2007,” he confirmed. “There’s a confidence in a certain sector of the industry that believes this will be a blockbuster of popular entertainment.

“Our market research during previews indicated the show is scoring strongly with the ordinary man in the street,” Wallace added.

“It had a 95% approval rating among nonregular theatergoers. We have been receiving a universally positive response from tour operators, and we feel we’re positioned for success.”

Trying to get an exact fix on sales and attendance, however, is proving murkier than a journey through the Mines of Moria.

Just before the show’s opening, the publicity office of Toronto presenter and co-producer Mirvish Prods. was quoting an advance of $15.4 million. And in an interview the day after the opening, David Mirvish alluded to 180,000 tickets being sold, which would fill the 2,100-seat Princess of Wales Theater to capacity for 11 weeks.

However, suddenly all figures are being withdrawn from the press.

According to Mirvish Prods. director of communications John Karastamatis, “Our lawyers have reminded us that now that the financial arrangements for ‘LOTR’ have been finalized with all the various investors, this precludes us from discussing publicly the sales figures before they are given to all the investors.

“The investments are structured and governed by the Ontario securities regulating body,” he continued. “This is why we have not given Daily Variety any grosses since the show began performing.”

The only statement producers are willing to make is that the show took in twice the amount at the box office the day after opening as it had been doing before.

However, without knowing what the daily gross was averaging, the impact of such a statement is hard to evaluate. A well-reviewed Broadway show can almost quadruple its daily sales the day after opening.

As for the critical reaction, Wallace said, “I knew this would always be a show that would divide people. They’d either love it or reject it and no one would offer a middle-of-the-road response.”

He said the creative team will take a break for six weeks and then revisit the show “and ask ourselves what fine-tuning needs to be done.”

But even the sanguine Wallace allowed, “The consolidation of any show is in the three months after it opens. You’ve got to communicate to the public what it is. Now is the most crucial time.”

As Bilbo Baggins says in one of the show’s songs, the road goes ever on.