How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular: Theatre Review

How to Train Your Dragon
Dreamworks/Global Creatures
Wing-flapping puppets offer a different kind of fun for young fans of the 2010 film.

The North American tour of DreamWorks' live adaptation follows a successful run in Australia and New Zealand.

UNIONDALE, NEW YORK — Replacing the verve of an uncommonly winning CG-animated feature with the physical immediacy of life-sized, maneuverable puppets, DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular is more generic than its inspiration but offers enough novelty to amuse both fans of the film and those with a soft spot for animatronics.

Set on an empty arena stage whose scenery is supplied by rear projection, the show works hard to replicate cinema's moving cameras and quick edits by placing actors in front of an ever-changing backdrop. The effect works best in flying scenes, where the camera glides past mountaintops, but can also fall flat, as when a fleet of model ships row unconvincingly toward a projected island for battle. In one hokey sequence, our hero dangles from a cable -- miming running, climbing and falling while the background changes perspectives at the speed of an action montage.

That hero, a Viking with the unheroic moniker Hiccup, is a scrawny boy expected to fight dragons but destined to befriend them instead. Nigel Jamieson's adaptation of Cressida Cowell's original story offers a skeletal version of the movie's plot: enough to jog the memory but not to stir much sympathy among anyone new to the story.

Almost all interpersonal comedy is gone; only story-moving beats remain. Dramatically, things work best when the fewest actors are on stage: In big scenes, burly Vikings declaim about bravery and watch their lines soar, undigested, into the hockey rink's rafters; when Hiccup is alone onstage with his captive-turned-pet dragon Toothless, we can care about what happens between them. (Throughout the cast, performances are game and energetic but don't approach the standard of traditional stage productions.)

Toothless and his dragon cousins are, of course, the show's sole reason for being, and the tech and artistic teams do a fine job of bringing them to life, employing various techniques for different species of fire-breather. Some prowl the floor, body and legs controlled by unobtrusive carts that move beneath them; some fly on cables attached to an oblong track mounted overhead; small ones have human puppeteers inside. All are well articulated and colorfully designed, and a few are big enough to be fairly exciting. (One thing they don't really do is breathe fire, though billowing smoke and the strategic use of onstage pyro makes for a sensible substitute.)

Only so much can be done to replicate the film's action, though. Stunts requiring actors to be knocked about by the beasts demand some imagination on the viewer's part, and a press release promising "dragons who soar overhead at great speeds" stretches the limits of PR truthtelling. What actually happens is that cable-bound monsters move rather slowly while an image behind them moves quickly, and in general this is enough. Kids and parents alike will find flying sequences preferable to almost all of the earthbound action.

Venue: Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, New York (touring nationwide)

Cast: Riley Miner, Gemma Nguyen, Robert Morgan, Will Watkins, Godefroy Ryckewaert, Dexter Mayfield, Virackhaly Ngeth, Frace Luke Mercado

Director: Nigel Jamieson

Book: Cressida Cowell

Adapted for the stage by: Nigel Jamieson

Music: John Powell, Jónsi, Basil Hogios

Creature Design: Sonny Tilders

Creatures: The Creature Technology Company

Sound designer: Peter Hylenski

Lighting designer: Philip Lethlean

Movement director: Gavin Robins

Costume, projection designer: Dan Potra

Production designer: Peter England

Presented by DreamWorks Animation, Global Creatures, S2BN Entertainment, RZO Dragon Productions