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Breaking the Hobbit

Cirque du Tolkien folds its tent in Toronto

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Whether you're spending Canadian coin or American currency, $27 million is one very serious investment in a new theater enterprise. Up in Canada, where The Lord of the Rings opened on March 23, Toronto-based Mirvish Productions lavished its record-setting bankroll into four full years of concepting, composing, technological pioneering, preproduction tweaking and supercharged publicity.

Like a nightmare apparition, return on this lordly investment has arrived with merciless speed, imperiling an epic quest to hatch a megahit. After mixed reviews -- and sub-thunderous box office clamor -- producers have already cancelled a planned Broadway invasion and announced a September 3 closing date in Toronto.

Call it a catastrophe, perhaps the worst commercial North-of-the-border disaster since the Titanic confounded its unsinkable hype. Causes of the quick capsizing will be debated and discussed for years to come.

Having seen the show in Toronto five weeks ago, I can tell you that this wasn't simply a matter of theater naifs dropping big money into a proven literary/movie brand name and relying on the product to sell itself. Parts of the production were visually awesome: spectral Black Riders advancing menacingly toward us in stunning strobe lighting, a congregation of Ents looming some 20 feet above us -- as tree creatures should.

The technology deployed at the Princess of Wales Theatre truly expanded the possibilities of live stage. Thirty tons of concrete were removed from the Princess's original stage to make way for 40 tons of computer-controlled flooring -- and 17 embedded elevators constantly reconfiguring the terrain of the new stage into J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth fantasy world.

Beyond the technical wizardry, overall integration between storyline, music and design was masterfully cohesive. Wherever Frodo and Sam journey, through realms of danger and wonder, costuming is always remarkably apt, right down to the minutest detail, such as the Indiana Jones hat worn by Treebeard, chief of the Ents. Music by Indian composer A.R. Rahman and Varttina, a Finnish world-beat ensemble, gives the score a New Age Celtic flavor that marks a clear departure from the customary universe of Broadway blockbusters -- in the right direction.

So what sank The Lord? Start with its own weight, an entertainment experience lasting over 3-1/2 hours, including two intermissions.

But there are other fundamentals at fault. Muddled objectives and storytelling are at the core of Rings' unraveling. Misguided packaging and publicity crystallized while the creative team struggled to find the best way to tame the massive trilogy. Confused and outraged response from audiences and critics were the inevitable results.

Storytelling -- LOTR seems to have begun conceptually as a musical, evolving into a stage drama with music. Early reports gave the full running time of the fledgling creation as approaching five hours. Considering the few throwaway songs that remained in the score, I'd say a goodly amount of musical excess was shorn while shepherding this pioneering effort to opening night.

Unfortunately, some vital sinew has been trimmed from the storyline, rendering long stretches of the awesome action either vestigial or incomprehensible. Who is battling whom and why? we might ask. If the Ents on their stilts were eliminated from the scenario, would anybody but Tolkien cultists notice?

Three two-hour productions would tell this story more richly and coherently, giving us more of an opportunity to get to know Tolkien's characters and experience the thrill of their conflicts and adventures. A radical re-think could build upon the strengths of this show and save it. Yet the producers are intending to trim LOTR further before a last-gasp remount in London scheduled for late this year. A crowning blunder.

Promotion -- After mislabeling their property a megamusical, the Toronto promoters continued making mistakes. In a March 15 self-interview enclosed in the Lord press package, producer Kevin Wallace decrees that the new show will be quite suitable for 8-year-olds, a true family attraction. Yet the playbill includes a three-page "Lord of the Rings Synopsis" to help adults comprehend the spectacle.

Maybe the fabulous success of Cirque du Soleil inspired this wild miscalculation. After all, the Quebec-based troupe has conquered Manhattan and Vegas with family fare that packages nebulous storylines with eye-popping theatricality. Adding a proven tale should hugely improve the product's marketability, right?

Wrong. Cirque du Tolkien sent out the clowns and the acrobats, replacing them with richly clad actors who wield words, wands and weapons to keep our attention. Juggling narrative with spectacle, LOTR dropped the ball.

Perception -- Critics who compared the impact of Tolkien onstage to the book or the movie may have missed the trees for the forest. Reading imaginatively about the Black Riders, I'm sure I can cerebrally conjure up their menace, and computer animation projected across a widescreen at a cinema multiplex certainly adds to the visual impact. But for sheer visceral response, you need to be sitting in the orchestra up at the Princess of Wales. There the magic of theater arts puts the actual beast less than 30 feet away. No movie or book can match that.

So at a record-breaking $125, ticket prices that nearly equal what Cirque du Soleil charges in Vegas, theater and Rings devotees might discover they'll get superior value from Cirque du Tolkien in Toronto. They'll need to hurry, hurry, hurry before it closes.

Stellar Arts Advocacy

You may have heard that Stan Peal, fresh from his playwriting successes up in New York, is getting ready to reignite Epic Arts Repertory Theatre, the company he founded with wife Laura Depta. Epic is getting ready to unveil Peal's new musical, The Expanding Sky, premiering at Actor's Theatre on August 10.

Initial funding for the new work was provided by a commission from the Ensemble Studio Theatre in conjunction with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The idea of writing a script based on the life of self-taught astronomer Milton Humason, who developed the idea of an expanding universe with Edward Hubble, began appealing to Peal back in the '80s when he first read Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

An embryonic version of the musical was presented in New York last May at a concert reading during EST's First Light Festival. Impetus for a full-fledged production came from Catherine Connor, who invited Depta to lunch here in Charlotte and plunked $5,000 on the table to rekindle Epic's pilot light.

Theater lovers everywhere can join in the grassroots fundraising this Friday at the home of Catherine & Wilton Connor, on 1133 Queens Road. The "Party With the Stars" event, from 6-9pm, features wine, hors d'oeuvres and choice musical morsels from The Expanding Sky performed live -- by the stars under the stars.

More info at www.epicartsrep.org.

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