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First Night Review: The Lord Of The Rings


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Not unlike the red, lidless orb of the evil Sauron, the eye of the theatre world swivelled towards Toronto last night for the long-awaited opening of the stage version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy.



It is a collaboration between the director Matthew Warchus, Shaun McKenna (book and lyrics), the composer A. R. Rahman, who is best known for Bombay Dreams, and the Finnish folk group Varttina under the musical supervision of Christopher Nightingale. It is also an enterprise daring almost to the point of foolhardiness. Yet, on the whole, it works, without resorting to the slick but soulless spectacle of Cirque du Soleil, or declining into Gothic cliché, a pitfall even Peter Jackson’s celebrated films did not entirely succeed in avoiding.


The stage version’s great strength lies in the way its constituent parts combine in an organic whole. Warchus insists that the show is not a musical, and certainly there are few conventional show tunes here. Songs arise directly from the action and are less concerned with expressing an inner emotional state than with representing ritual or a fragment of an oral and musical history passed down and shared.


Equally, Rob Howell’s designs, exquisitely lit by Paul Pyant, are achieved with uncluttered economy rather than hi-tech wizardry, and with an emphasis on natural textures and colours redolent of the story’s Middle-earth setting.


The score is a bewitching blend of smooth and jagged, lush and sparse. Female voices keening in close harmony shiver like quicksilver beneath a confrontation between Gandalf and the treacherous Saruman; a hymn-like chorale accompanies the departure of the newly formed Fellowship from Rivendell. There are folksy wayfaring songs for the Hobbits and insistent, throbbing drums of war gathering pace and volume as events grow darker.


Visually, the show’s rough- theatre aesthetic is put to dazzlingly inventive use. Orcs leap and somersault on springed shoes; puppetry and stiltwalking ingeniously bring to life Shelob, the giant spider, and Black Riders that exude menace. In one breathtaking moment, the discovery of the ring on a riverbed by Gollum’s ill-fated friend Deagol is enacted by the character’s emergence from the dizzying height of the flies, swimming stagewards in a perfect shaft of watery light.


There are, however, significant disappointments. The Balrog looks as if it has been made of baking foil. The Battle of Helm’s Deep makes dynamic use of the stage’s revolve and multiple moving levels, and of Peter Darling’s bold, thrilling choreography, only to peter out in feeble flagwaving.


James Loye is an appealing Frodo, and his relationship with Peter Howe’s touchingly loyal Sam Gamgee is the show’s beating heart. Michael Therriault is terrific as Gollum, full of bitter, sibilant wit, and squirming and convulsing with pain and repressed desire for his Precious. Evan Buliung makes Aragorn suitably virile and intense, and Carly Street is a dignified, pure-voiced Arwen.


But Rebecca Jackson Mendoza is a lifeless Galadriel and is saddled with by far the worst song — an irksome and incongruous power ballad that she belts out slightly flat. Still less satisfactory is Brent Carver as Gandalf. Clearly young for the role, Carver does nothing to suggest the gravitas, wisdom or authority of age and seems hesitant and ill at ease, not remotely the powerful, world-weary wizard he should be.


In the end, though, theatrical magic wins out over the weaknesses. “Stories we tell will cast their spell, now and for always,” sing Frodo and Sam. With some fine tuning, this tale could hold its audience in total thrall. For now, its best moments are, like the ring, an intoxicating enchantment.


The show is due to arrive in the West End of London next year.


The title of the exclusive track is Lothlórien. It is played as the Fellowship emerges from Moira, and is offered refuge in the Elvish haven of Lothlórien. The music is by A R Rahman with Christopher Nightingale. This track is a demo version, not a recording from the production currently on stage in Toronto.


Source: Times Online

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