Peter Howe, James Loye, and Michael Therriault
in The Lord of the Rings

(Photo ©Manuel Harlan)
Peter Howe, James Loye, and Michael Therriault
in The Lord of the Rings
(Photo ©Manuel Harlan)
What does it say about a show when the sets and the special effects get stronger applause from an opening night audience than does the acting? The Lord of the Rings, in its world premiere production at the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto, sadly neglects story and relies too heavily on spectacle. Director Matthew Warchus and writer/lyricist Shaun McKenna simply don't succeed in their attempt to squeeze J.R.R. Tolkien's epic onto the stage.

It's telling that the synopsis contained in the program is two tiny-type pages long; there's just too much explaining to be done. ("Now we are here/there/lost, and we must go north/south/back/forward at once/at dawn/at all costs and fight/destroy/unite with the dark lord/our friends/the trees.") With the sole exception of Gollum, played terrifically by Michael Theriault, none of the characters come to life on stage. The highlight of the show is the scene in which Gollum delivers what might be called a double soliloquy, trapped as he is between loyalty to Frodo -- the only being who has ever been kind to him -- and to the forces of darkness. Gollum is twisted in both spirit and body, and Therriault makes the most of this; every moment of moral indecision is mirrored precisely in the hideous wretch's body and voice. Conversely, Tony Award winner Brent Carver as Gandalf is miscast, utterly lacking the majesty, the stern countenance, and the deep, booming voice that are essential to this role.

The Lord of the Rings isn't a musical in the traditional sense; it's more an epic tale with incidental music.The score has a distinctly Celtic tone, but composer A.R. Rahman, who calls upon his Indian roots, and the Finnish folk group Värttinä have provided some unique harmonies. What initially strikes us as discordant soon becomes addictive.

The special effects are astounding; sections of the stage rise and fall with spectacular precision, surround-sound comes at you like you've never heard it before, and the show is full of horribly evil creatures that seem like the worst monster-under-the-bed nightmares of your childhood come to life. There are also towering trees that speak and move; shadowy, apocalyptic horses; and the Evil Lord's helpers, the Orcs. It's all scary as hell and great fun, but many of these effects seem dropped into the show without rhyme or reason, and the incredible technical wizardry only serves only to point up the thinness of the plot. It's almost as if the techies and the writers had worked separately on the production and never met till the first dress rehearsal.

All the elements of a great show are here, but the creators should have focused more of their attention on making the emotional arc of the story clear and compelling. It would be a pleasure to report that The Lord of the Rings succeeds; after all, as Frodo says, "What kind of world is it going to be without magic?" Unfortunately, there's not enough magic in this production to satisfy most theatergoers.