LOTR Musical review

Well … Wow.

I let a day go by before writing this review because last night I was awed, overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what the cast, crew and producers of this musical were doing. Skip everything else for just a moment. The stage revolves 360º with many different sections that raise and lower to create ramps, ramparts, cliffs and gullies. The set reaches out into the audience with foliage, branches and lights extending from the stage. They make use of effects like running water, echoes, wind, and strobe lights. The cast is large yet the stage never feels crowded. The costumes are rustic, majestic, creepy, warlike; each in perfect measure. It’s incredible to watch (even if your imagination isn’t captured) for the logistics of it all.

But my imagination and my heart were indeed captured. And so I search for a word, a phrase, something catchy to sum it all up. I … can’t. I’m down to ‘Wow.’

I went to see this musical in the same way that I went to that first showing of Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring. I wasn’t sure what would happen and I wasn’t really expecting to like the end result. Just like that first showing of FotR, I love this production more than I can express. I’ve seen many plays and musicals over the years and this one outshines them all.

From the start, getting seated in the lush Princess of Wales theatre, the audience was enthralled. Many were examining the branches that extend from the stage out into the seating area, craning their necks upward and to each side to take it all in. Then Hobbits appeared onstage. It wasn’t time for the play to start and we all wondered what it was about. There were some Hobbit-lads fishing and reaching for fireflies hovering just out reach. We felt like we were really watching a little bit of the Shire right in front of us. I won’t tell you more and spoil the delight, but it is a marvellously entertaining way to lead up to a play. Get there early to enjoy it.

I also won’t go through the story in detail; it should be experienced. Yes, of course it’s truncated and many things have to be left out or changed. However, the spirit of Tolkien’s story remains true and the flow of events is not interrupted. We’ll all wish for different things, but I think that overall it satisfies. The books, the movies and this musical are as different and alike as Aman, Rivendell and Lothlórien. Aman and the books are the truth of the matter, the heart of the myth. The movies, like Rivendell, are both what you expect and what you don’t, what you love most and what you miss most, a place where you feel at once so familiar with everything and yet at times like a stranger. The musical is like Lórien. It’s somehow less the content of the story, but purer at its heart, less detailed beauty, but more poignant and truthful. You might spend less time here but your heart is refreshed, your faith in many things restored.

Am I being overly dramatic? Maybe to someone who doesn’t see the lure or value of Tolkien’s incredible work I am. However to you, for whom I am writing this, I don’t think so. What brings us together is how much we love this story and the musical is true to the essence of the story.

One of my favourite scenes is when the Hobbits are being pursued by the Ringwraiths. One thing I really appreciate is the way they have used light and shadow to create spooky and frightening environments. The scenes with the Nazgûl are wonderful because of this. You see them imperfectly and they are huge. They have created props that allow them to flow across the stage – in all their spooky, threatening glory. I wish we saw more of the Nazgûl throughout; they were a great presence on stage. Light and shadow also creates a stark and unique effect for Orthanc, a perfect setting for Saruman.

I liked the Hobbits’ first encounter with the Elves. There was a rich highlight on the Elves and some height aspects that made them quite Otherworldly. It sent chills down my arms. I also loved the stand the Nine make at Bruinen – the effect for the river is very creative. And they also show what it’s like for Frodo when he puts on the Ring. Rivendell and the Council scene are interesting and I like how Arwen is established as part of Aragorn’s life. She comes in throughout the story but it’s never intrusive and they did a really nice job of keeping her presence relevant and important to Aragorn. The set for Moria is very well done and the climax of the first act (think you can guess?) is as a big a climax as I’ve ever seen, worthy of its main character. Shadow and flame indeed. It’s also delightfully sketchy (either as a result of the special effects or on purpose) in the area of wings, rather like the book. Well done!

One of the highlights of the second act is Lothlórien and my favourite part of the play, hands down. It’s ethereal and beautiful, but it has substance and weight. I think you will love how they climb up to the Elven flets. I was wondering how they would handle it (movie Lórien makes me sleepy) and the vision surpassed my imagination.

You know, I wasn’t sure that there would be Ents in the musical. How would they do them? I wondered. Maybe they’ll be awfully tree-ish like the movie version? Or just too short.

Well, I’m happy to report there are Ents and they’re satisfyingly Entish and not at all short. Many things are handled very well in this production. Some of my favourite moments were Gandalf’s return (very dramatic and exciting), and Aragorn on the Paths of the Dead. Now, that was a fantastic scene – it might be my second favourite moment of night. Here is where I really felt A.R. Rahman’s music. As an Indian film fan it’s something I’d been eager for since the start. It’s very dramatic and disturbing in this scene. Excellent!

There were so many great moments during the musical and there is one in particular that I’m itching to tell about, but it was such a great surprise to see this acted out onstage that I don’t want to spoil it for you. Give you a hint though – it’s in the third act and Frodo and Sam are in the scene, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to clap and jump around in your seat. Just this bit alone would have been worth my money to see.

The one thing that disappointed a little was that Sauron wasn’t around as much as I wanted. It’s not something that ruins it by any means, but you know … a little more of the bad guy … just his wicked presence asserting itself some more … Of course, I can fully appreciate just how difficult it would be to try to characterize a being like Sauron, so I’ll just be quiet about it.

I thought the acting was great overall. I’ve seen Brent Carver in other productions and I like him very much, but his Gandalf seemed to rush through every line as though the Wizard Union of Middle-earth had him bound to a time limit. Some of the lengthier things that Gandalf had to say just didn’t seem to flow well because they were being rushed together. I also had this feeling in the first conversation between Aragorn and Arwen. I hope they relax into their roles and slow down their lines a bit. I don’t know how you all feel about it, but for me a wizard like Gandalf would say things a bit more slowly and with more weight to his words, as if he’d been pondering these things for hundreds of years (which we all know he has).

A fellow who seems destined to require his own paragraph is Gollum who was wonderfully portrayed with all of the twitching and crouching he has in my imagination. He evokes such emotion and his madness and addiction to the Ring are well played out. There is one lovely scene with Frodo and Sam where they reminisce about the Shire; it brings tears to the eyes and is very sad at the end when Gollum sings a little. It really brings the heartache deep within him out for all of us to see.

The music was composed by A.R. Rahman and Värttinä and is hauntingly inspiring. Rahman is a veteran of the Indian film industry and he isn’t afraid to take chances with his music. He is a perfect choice in this context as well as he blends together different types of world music to create the unique and echoing melodies of Middle-earth. Värttinä is a distinguished folk music group from Finland. Together with Rahman they have created harmonies and a vocal quality in the singing that will continue to resonate long after you leave the theatre.

Alright, you knew it would be here somewhere … I’ve left the nit-picky things to the end. (Purist Alert!) Tolkien wrote about how to pronounce the names in his language so why can’t anyone get Sméagol and Déagol right? Why (oh why) do they say “Smeegol?” Bah! It’s Smey-a-gol. Please someone say it right just once … just once, preciouss. That holds true for Sauron. PJ and company, they got that one, but last night he was Soar-on. Soaron’s ring and Soaron’s wrath and Soaron in general. Maybe someone will catch that at some point (hopefully before I go see it again).

Whew! Glad to get that out. These things are so, so small in the scale of the production, that they’re easily overlooked. I’ve wasted too many words already and a good bit of your precious time only to say in the end … wow. This production deserves to be a success. I know I will go see it again at least twice. Such an experience is worth a pinch in the pocketbook (and hey, have you ever tried to get tickets to a hockey game in this city?). If it stays in Toronto for any length of time I’ll probably see it even more times. It’s worth it. It’s fun, majestic, scary, sad, profound and witty as the books we love.

I never thought this work could be made into a movie – and they did a good job of that. I certainly never thought it could be made into a musical, but they have far exceeded my expectations, not just in terms of presenting this particular story, but in presenting this musical overall. It seems a phenomenal effort worthy of Tolkien's great epic and raising the bar for musical productions up a few notches. The cast and crew should be very proud. And if you can get up (down or over) to Toronto for a performance, forth Eorlingas! You’ll not regret this night of Middle-earth magic.

(Originally posted at War of the Ring.net. Check out the great comments and feedback there!)

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