EmptyTheater Royal Drury Lane, London
Through March 28
LONDON -- A transatlantic trip seems to have done wonders for the epic stage version of "The Lord of the Rings" that has just opened in the West End following a dire opening run in Toronto. What was slammed as long and tedious in Canada has had 40 minutes trimmed and become a genuine theatrical spectacle that should please fans of the books and movies and intrigue the uninitiated.
Not a musical in the traditional sense, the show boasts tunes with Bollywood and Celtic influences that serve as a soundtrack to the action. And there's plenty of action, as the stage is filled with J.R.R. Tolkien's strange and colorful characters and many horrific beasts that occasionally stray into the audience.
Many of the Toronto cast have stayed on for the new, more streamlined production, including James Loye as Frodo, Peter Howe as Sam and the astonishingly nimble Michael Therriault as Gollum. British veteran Malcolm Storry replaces Brent Carver as the wizard Gandalf, and Laura Michelle Kelly, Olivier Award-winning star of "Mary Poppins," lends her extraordinary vocal power to the role of Galadriel.
Critical response in London has been mixed, with the Telegraph's Charles Spencer sneering: "They have wasted their time and talent on a show that combines tiresome grandiosity with mind-rotting mediocrity." But the Guardian's Michael Billington said, "If Tolkien's trilogy is to be a stage spectacle, I don't see how it could be better done," and the Times' Sam Marlowe declared, "Snobbery and cynicism be damned: This show is a wonder."
It's certainly big and noisy, as well as a major achievement in hydraulics as center stage rotates and moves up and down in dozens of pieces. Rob Howell's leafy set design extends far beyond the stage to the ceiling and walls of the theater, and creatures disguised in his ingenious costumes pop up amid the seats to scare audience members during the second brief intermission.
The dramatic elements of the story have no doubt benefited from the cuts, though director Matthew Warchus probably could be even more brutal and cut the sequence involving the tree folk known as the Ents. Tolkien purists might object, but those who find the whole story tosh anyway wouldn't be troubled, and the deletion would help the story move more quickly.
The music has been correctly identified as Enya meets Riverdance, and the sometimes atonal and always loud delivery is an acquired taste even with Kelly's impeccable vocal prowess. Still, Frodo and Sam's mission to dispose of the cursed ring amid wizards, elves and Orcs retains its schoolboy appeal. And Therriault's gymnastic portrayal of Gollum, with a voice so strangled it hurts, is a piece of theater not to be missed.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Theater Royal Drury Lane
Presented by Kevin Wallace and Saul Zaentz
Book and lyrics: Shaun McKenna, Matthew Warchus
Music: A.R. Rahman, Vartinna, Christopher Nightingale
Director: Matthew Warchus
Choreographer: Peter Darling
Set and costume designer: Rob Howell
Lighting designer: Paul Pyant
Sound designer: Simon Baker (for Autograph)
Moving image director: The Gray Circle
Special effects designer: Gregory Meeh
Illusions and magic effects: Paul Kieve
Frodo Baggins: James Loye
Sam: Peter Howe
Gandalf: Malcolm Storry
Strider: Jerome Pradon
Boromir: Steven Miller
Galadriel: Laura Michelle Kelly
Legolas: Michael Rouse
Gollum: Michael Therriault
Bilbo Baggins: Terence Frisch
Rosie: Kirsty Malpass
Pippin: Owen Sharpe
Merry: Richard Henders
Elranien: Alexandra Bonnet
Saruman: Brian Protheroe
Barliman: Tim Parker
Bill Ferny/Treebeard: Michael Hobbs
Glorfindel: Alma Ferovic
Arwen: Rosalie Craig
Gimli: Sevan Stephan
Haldir: Wayne Fitzsimmons
Steward: Tim Morgan