Look to the north, young hobbits: A shadow has fallen on the land, the shadow of a show so massive, it spills from the stage, envelops the balconies in a lattice of tendriled vines, and blows confettied bits of itself into the audience in great gales of technical wizardry. This is The Lord of the Rings, newly opened at Toronto’s cavernous Princess of Wales Theatre. And while there is music — ceaseless and keening and occasionally celestial — this is not a musical; the term is too narrow for LOTR ‘s Wagnerian ambitions.
No, this is a ceremony, and congregants may feel like they’re in church, even if the hymns (a world-music gumbo that’s by turns soaring, soothing, and somnolent, concocted from contributions by Bollywood maestro A.R. Rahman and Enya-esque Finnish group Värttinä) aren’t as catchy. It’s music to meditate and/or browse pewter gnomes by, and, as a companion noted, Indian plus Scandinavian somehow equals Irish.
But the music is just aural backdrop — there are bigger designs afoot. Collapsing all three volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic into a three-act structure, writer-lyricist-director Matthew Warchus and writer-lyricist Shaun McKenna attempt something Peter Jackson thought both impossible and inadvisable: telling a 1,100-page story in one three-and-a-half-hour sitting. Details and characters surge forth in torrents, and one can feel the audience retreat to a safe distance. Tilting back, they adopt a mesmerized, planetarium-show passivity.
That’s a pleasant enough vibe, but one misses the small stuff. And the small stuff, unfortunately, is what gives a marble-arched martial epic its homebody soul. James Loye (as Ring-bearer Frodo), Peter Howe (loyal retainer Sam), and Michael Therriault (ruined, treacherous Gollum) give finely wrought performances, steering clear of their film forebears. (As Gandalf, Brent Carver also tries something new — something vocally strangled and physically rabbity. He looks less like a wizard than a neurotic glassblower.) Their pilgrims’ progress, however, is swallowed by stagecraft.
Ah, but what stagecraft! Warchus has reinterpreted Broadway-style extravaganza as Total Art, and he matches an instinct for kinetic, quasi-cinematic magnificence with a refreshingly unfilmic antiliteralism. Horse-mounted Ringwraiths materialize in spectral body-puppet form, magnificently underlit. A giant spider, equal parts shadow and substance, creeps forward and into your children’s nightmares. Creatures loom on impossibly high stilts. (Not every effect hits its mark: The orcs, arms awkwardly enlongated with crutchlike appendages, appear more pathetic than fearsome; the valiant Fellowship seems to be slaughtering a vast army of the disabled.)
Yet Rings is more passion play than puppet show, and like all passion plays, it’s best at moving the hearts of the already faithful, those with the scriptures memorized and no disbelief to suspend. The less-than-observant (in every sense) may not have the slightest idea what’s going on, though they’d have to be made of troll-stone not to be moved by the abundant magic of Warchus and Co.’s propulsive visual storytelling. Tears will be shed by believer and nonbeliever alike. But if you’re looking for a close personal relationship with Frodo, I’d recommend private devotion. No one comes to a cathedral for the intimacy. (Tickets: 800-461-3333)