Toronto — MEMO to producers of would-be blockbusters: Keep your outrageous production costs to yourselves.
One would have thought that "Waterworld" was enough to teach everyone this basic lesson. Now we have "The Lord of the Rings," the theatrical juggernaut that had its world premiere here Thursday, flaunting its $23-million price tag.
"A new legend is born," boasts the marketing campaign of what is reputedly one of the most expensive shows in history.
Well, much as the theater may deplore its beer-budget conditions, a colossal bankroll is no guarantee of such legendary status -- or, for that matter, a measly standing ovation, which noticeably failed to ignite after the reviewed performance Tuesday.
The good news for investors is that commercially the project will surely pay off. Riding the coattails of Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning trilogy with its global gross of $3 billion and counting, this kind of parasitic extravaganza has a built-in audience. Today Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre, tomorrow London's West End, followed by the rest of the premium-ticket-buying world.
If the creators can get J.R.R. Tolkien's mammoth epic down to 90 minutes from its current 3 1/2 hours, there's even a chance it could one day reach Vegas. And by the looks of Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus' bleary adaptation, it's hard to imagine anyone objecting to the cuts. After all, who cares about a few more missing chapters in the contest between good and evil in Middle-earth when there's a humongous jackpot waiting?
Artistically, the stage version makes the movie seem that much more impressive. Neither a straight drama nor a traditional musical, the new production succeeds only as a dazzling spectacle. Even so, you'll need to bone up on the books just to follow what's going on, let alone enjoy the ride. Or better yet, get the DVDs, which for all their interminable length demonstrate how material as intractable as Tolkien's can be made dramatically addictive.
Jackson's boldest stroke -- casting the young-looking Elijah Wood as Frodo -- may have caused great debate among the novel's devotees, who know that, even given the relatively long life-spans of hobbits, the protagonist is no kid. But Wood's gawky, late-pubescent appearance raised the stakes of his character's fearsome journey, putting us into a different relationship not only to his safety but also to the threat of his moral corruption.
In this regard, Warchus, the British director best known to L.A. audiences for his internationally acclaimed production of "Art," has been somewhat more faithful to the source material. His Frodo, played by James Loye with rouged cheeks to add a patina of innocence, has clearly passed from adolescence into full adulthood.
This isn't inherently a drawback. (Tolkien's books seem to have an ever-expanding cult following.) Trouble is, Loye has the touching vulnerability of your average Swiss banker -- and about as much stage presence. In fact, it's probably the first time in the history of the novel that Sam (Peter Howe), Frodo's galumphing gardener and trusty ally, outshines his beloved friend. When, late in the story, Sam courageously attempts to destroy the ring that has been contaminating everyone who bears it with power lust, the emotion rises in a way that has been conspicuously absent throughout Frodo's perilous adventures.
And while we're on the topic of age, it's hard to figure out what was behind the casting of Brent Carver as Gandalf the wizard. The role, majestically incarnated by Ian McKellen, doesn't necessarily have to be costumed in the same geriatric fashion, but Carver completely lacks gravitas. The senior-most advisor to the fellowship of the ring, he seems to have been demoted to a junior partner whom not even Merry (Dylan Roberts) and Pippin (Owen Sharpe), the young hobbits perpetually in need of rescue, would automatically heed.
To balance the ledger sheet, let it be noted that Warchus' production has improved on Legolas' hairstyle (Orlando Bloom's long blond strands are a distant, hilarious memory), and the elaborate gibberish beloved by Tolkien (and subtitled for Liv Tyler) is kept to a blessed minimum.
What's more, the staging wisely doesn't try to compete with Jackson's superlative battle scenes. And how could it? All the money in the world can't make up for the inherent advantage film has over theater when it comes to special effects.
Warchus instead opts for stylized choreography (the brainchild of Peter Darling), a rumbling orchestral soundscape, and lighting and video effects that are without question the most mesmerizing aspect of the show.
Pity the production can't be judged exclusively on its design -- it would be roundly considered a hit. Moonbeams pierce -- sometimes menacingly, sometimes magnificently -- through lush tangles of Rob Howell's foliage-trimmed set. And when the dark riders on their horses and savage, high-bounding orcs run amok, the stage shakes with the starkly melodramatic fright of childhood nightmares.