Rambling ...

I'm an Irish Girl, A Dubliner, with the 'Gift of the Gab' ... I like to talk & to tell you things. In Celtic times news, views and comment were carried from place to place by wandering Seanachaí ~ Storytellers ~ who relied on their host's hospitality and appreciation. I will need that from you too, as I venture to share Politics, Poetry, Laughter, Love, Life & everything in-between ... from Bog to Blog!!

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Very British Musical!

Review of  'The Lord of the Rings' Musical ~ Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London.

It's Monday & a 'Musical' Review ......

YOU’VE read the book, you’ve seen the movies, now here’s the musical ~ except it isn’t really a musical, but a series of spectacular scenes with dialogue and songs. And spectacular is hardly the word for it ~ it’s a phantasmagoria of light, action and sound, ~ the stage revolves , sections of it rise and fall, people appear and disappear as if by magic, there are fireworks, lighting, and other effects which really have to be seen to be appreciated. There are walking, talking Ents, Elves appearing out of the foliage covering the auditorium boxes and well choreographed kabuki style fights where one side seems to be on springs which makes for impressive action.

Amid all this there is a story trying to get out, one which covers three long volumes (four if you count The Hobbit) and here condensed into under three hours.  How then does it work? . . . It doesn’t!

The authors have done their best to try to bridge the gaps between scenes with descriptive dialogue, but unless you have prior knowledge of the tale it doesn’t really add up or make sense. To try to cram all the action from Tolkien’s Tome into three movies was already tough, to fit it into a three hour musical has proved impossible. If you hadn't read the book or seen the films, you would almost certainly be lost. But does that matter? I believe so, but that’s a personal decision. My companion, who has very little idea about Middle Earth and all that flows therefrom, just sat back and enjoyed it for what it was ~ a fabulous visual pleasure.

We were seated in the first row of the lower balcony and had a great view of the stage. The Shire greeted us through a forest growing out from a proscenium arch, and the centre-piece, a giant gold ring surrounded by branches, was the door to Bilbo’s hobbit hole, which ingeniously doubled as a portent of Sauron’s eye. Hobbits were chasing around the auditorium catching fireflies as the audience took their seats and I have No idea how they made the fireflies look so real. This set the scene and over the next three hours (yes, it was that long), we were impressed by the tech wizardry on display.

The Theatre Royal had shut down for four months to prepare for this production; it’s easy to see why. Visually, the set is spectacular. Twisted bramble, a rotating stage, in fact a rising, falling, spinning stage, and exquisite lighting give an impressive ‘wow-factor’.  Mechanics aside, there are, of course, actors amidst the visual glory trying to make their presence felt without, I’m afraid, very much success as the scenario is so episodic. Even with the help of the synopsis in the programme it’s very difficult to follow. Every line was basically a chapter from the book, there was next-to-no time for character development.

The musical is not part of the Rings film franchise. It wasn’t licensed through New Line Cinema but through Saul Zaentz, who is credited alongside Kevin Wallace as the producer. (He was one of the film’s executive producers, having sold the production and distribution rights to New Line.) Technically the musical has a book-based license, and Zaentz controls the many trademarks and adaptation rights associated with the book.   It’s hard to believe, though, that a splashy musical of this sort would have been created had the film not been such a huge success.  Running about three hours ~ including a twenty-minute intermission ~ the musical largely comes across as a hurried series of references to scenes and characters from the book.

 Acting-wise, Sam (Peter Howe) took the Hobbit crown… lead actor Frodo (James Loye) came across somewhat stilted as the put upon “hero” of the tale. He failed to make Frodo the least bit sympathetic, so we never empathised with him or cared where he went or what he got up to. Sam’s devoted journey however, portrayed the genuine struggle between the perils of friendship and the safe and familiar embrace of home. The writing didn't allow for the audience to connect emotionally to the characters, and we lost the main plot of Frodo and Sam's journey along the way. Jerome Praden's Aragorn was a proud warrior struggling with his duty and heritage and his love for the beautiful Elf Lady Arwen, played by Rosalie Craig. Both were particularly inept with absolutely no stage presence and displaying the most, wooden, school production 'dramatic' acting.


 It was Malcolm Storry as Gandalf though, who was the most disappointing. He spoke too quickly and his performance was just not believable, his disappearances and re-appearances were incoherent, the enormity of his task of living up to the character created by Ian McKellan proved way too much. Laura Michelle Kelly, however, made a very fetching Lady of the Golden Wood, she sang beautifully and dominated her scenes as the character should. Gollum also enthralled.  Unaided by Hollywood animations, Canadian actor Michael Therriault twisted his lanky body like an emaciated, strange, ring-obsessed goblin on narcotics. The rasping voice and erratic behaviour evoked collective audience pity, fear, humour and curiosity… .he was the personification of demonic evil, his hissing voice and physical writhings, his entrance, (which he makes climbing down the scenery), is breathtaking, and he never lets up, maintaining a performance which makes one forget for a moment that this is a human being and an actor, not a demented creature. Just the way Gollum should be. He was Superb. Apart from Gollum & Galadriel’s stunning performances, the other characters were shoddily portrayed. At best the acting was average. At worst . . . ?? The songs didn’t quite work well either, or were too long-winded. The music was distinctly ‘Bollywoodish’!!

I don’t understand why the producers thought this had to be a musical at all. Why not just a spectacular play? The songs are utterly unmemorable, and they obviously take up time that could have been spent on exposition and characterization.  Tolkien provides moments when songs could come in naturally, like Frodo’s performance in the Inn of the Prancing Pony.  Instead, it is turned into a big production number,  with all the patrons at the inn,  along with Butterbur (sorry, I mean “Landlord of the Prancing Pony”)  joining in the singing and dancing. The result is that Frodo does not put on the Ring accidentally when he executes an athletic dance move. There’s no apparent reason why he does put it on once the number ends.

 A helter-skelter journey through tattered remanants of JRR Tolkien’s great work ensued and anything and everything that might be a bit complex or demanding was simply elided. So we bounced from Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party (cue a song) to the Prancing Pony (cue a really big number) in a breathless whirl. There was a very clever staging of Bilbo’s disappearance at the end of the party when he puts on the ring, and the horror of the Dark Riders was alluded to, (the dark riders were giant puppets that really looked scary and huge and perfect) but it was all terribly jumbled.

Suddenly, we arrived in Rivendell where there were a lot of Elves floating. The elf costumes were incredibly ornate, one had 1,800 hand-sewn Swarovski crystals on it. (according to the programme). Again, wonderfully staged. Indeed, this was a major theme throughout the entire evening: the staging was everything. The central revolving section, which elevated and descended in various sections, was put to great use and allowed some deft scene changes whilst conveying the physical journey being undertaken. Frodo recovers from being stabbed by a dark rider’s dagger (I can’t remember it happening, but maybe they sung about it), Bilbo reappears, as does Gandalf, and they have a hasty Council of Elrond. So we tumbled on.


 We were then introduced to Saruman’s orcs, the Uruk-hai,, very full of wicked energy, most had to prance around on crutches. The lucky ones got to wear bouncy stilt things which made them doubly scary. Then off to the Mines of Moria. Speak Friend, and Enter. In we went & Pippin dropped a stone down the well . . . . Gandalf stands front of stage facing the audience and proclaims as fiery light surrounds him that the Balrog will not pass. Unfortunately for poor Gandalf, the Balrog appeared from the centre of the stage, whipping Gandalf down to the underworld and Act I closed.

A 20 minute trip to the bar!!

There were two intermissions. The first was a normal one. There were still two volumes to be played out and as we returned, there were Ents, played by actors on breathtakingly high stilts. Truly stunning, but of course time would not permit more than a brief treatment of their role within the story. The battle of the Hornburg took some three minutes, and was interpreted through dance, which started off well but became tedious to the point where it started to look like a boy band in armour doing a routine. After that my attention wandered, along with the flotsam and jetsam of Tolkien’s plot.

The second intermission was short, and you didn't leave your seat. They just brought down the curtain, upped the lights a little and set the Orcs loose in the theatre. These Orcs were pure nightmare material ~ their bouncing, screeching, dribbling was terribly magnificent. Arachnophobics are advised to steer well clear, a surprisingly-scary-up-close Orc approached us snarling and I screamed … and in case you venture to the Royal Theatre, I’m leaving you a surprise. Let’s just say Shelob was impressively amazing and the scary bits were awe inspiring, as was the final casting of the ring into the Crack of Doom.

Technically the show is brilliant, with some clever effects and ‘wow’ moments but this is no compensation for a generally disappointing show. Frankly, you can't dress up bad acting with special effects. The songs, when they appeared, were lacklustre and one might just as well have done without them except, I suppose, you can get away with more obfuscation of the plot if you describe it as a Musical rather than a dramatisation of the original. 
Perhaps the planners felt that Rings stood a chance of earning back the huge investment in stage technology, costumes, and an ensemble of seventy actors by making it a musical.   Maybe it would not have seemed different enough from the film for people to want to see it.   Maybe it was a sop to the 'Musical tourists'.   It always felt like the story was competing with the spectacle, never evening itself out to create a seamless interwoven stunning piece of theatre. As a straight play it might have worked but as a musical ~ In a wordNO!   
This is a spectacular piece of theatre,  but that is all it is  ~  Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ it isn’t!

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