Moving heaven and (Middle) Earth

After four years and countless last-minute rewrites, 'The Lord of the Rings' comes to the stage.

Few things could be harder than staging the most expensive theatrical production in history. Fewer still could be harder than adapting 1,200 plot- and action-filled pages, each of them worshiped by generations of readers, to a 3-1/2 hour show and setting it to music.

But perhaps the hardest part of bringing "The Lord of the Rings" to the stage is having to make major revisions just weeks before opening night.

Tell the ruthless, faceless Orcs to put down their swords before giving them the news. Mount stilts, duck the stage lights, and look a three-story-high Treebeard in the eye when you break it to him. Bounce the revisions off Gollum and wait for him to say that he's of two minds about it.

It's enough to test the fellowship of the company, never mind the Fellowship of the Ring. But these were the prospects that playwright Shaun McKenna stared down last week.

Mr. McKenna and director Matthew Warchus collaborated over four years to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien's novels for what producer Kevin Wallace describes as "a hybrid - one part drama, one part musical, one part spectacle." Previews opened at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto in February after much hype - including the self-styled "biggest and most ambitious theatrical production ever" - and with inevitable comparisons to Peter Jackson's Oscar-decorated film trilogy.

Alas, when the curtain dropped on "Rings" on the first night of previews, it could have also been fairly described as "one-part endurance test" - the show ran at least 4-1/2 hours. Mordor threatened to beget torpor. "We thought we were telling the story as economically as we could, and we were still too long," McKenna says. "Since the early previews, we've addressed most of the length issues."

Still, McKenna rewrote the second act last week - not a change of a line here or there, but rather the deletion of one scene entirely and the shifting around of battles sequences. All of this required significant production changes, from lighting down to costume. "We did a restructure because the pacing of the second act was wrong," McKenna says. "There are huge technical effects when you move a scene." It was by his estimate, "the 30-somethingth draft," and each one has been "closer to Tolkien."

And closer to the 3-1/2 hour mark mandated by union contracts.

Such streamlining is typical in any big show, and a casual Tolkien devotee can pick up on threads of the story that have been pulled from the fabric of the stage production. (Farewell, Faramir.) Thus, adaptation gave way to readaptation. Scenes that were months in the making were shuffled, shifted, truncated, or discarded. And this will almost certainly continue until opening night March 23.

Awash in dry ice

It's a show so sprawling that it spills from the stage before the curtain even lifts. While the audience files into the theater, Hobbits run around the aisles and stand on the arms of occupied seats chasing fireflies. It's a show so crowded with plot, characters, and song that Gollum makes his entrance poking out of the balcony in a high-wire act. It's a show so determined to draw in the audience that the first 20 rows were awash in dry ice and covered with something like confetti during one special effect.

Whether all this helps the stage version achieve similar commercial or critical success as the films (which earned $3 billion worldwide) remains to be seen.

According to Wallace, the play adapts Tolkien's novels, not Jackson's cinema trilogy, and that may be true to an extent. At least one strand of McKenna's book, a dark vignette on the Hobbits' return to the shire, never made it to the screen. Still, James Loye, a Welsh actor and a dead ringer for Elijah Wood, is cast as Frodo.

No number of revisions will take anything away from the strongest aspects of the production. There's no blue-penciling Gollum (Michael Therriault) into the background. There's no hiding the ensemble of Orcs whose fight scenes mash up Gene Kelly, Bruce Lee, and the Blue Man Group. There's no muffling the high notes struck in the soaring pop-operatic songs written by the Finnish group Vartinna and the score by A.R. Rahman.

By his own admission, McKenna anticipated difficulty in conveying "the huge amount of back story the audience needs to be told in a way that is digestible and understandable." The first act features an extensive narration with scenes played in silhouette on an elaborate set, sort of a Cliffs Notes introduction to Middle Earth.

Rave reviews

To date, reviews by hard-core "Lord of the Rings" fans have been ecstatic, though Internet chatter has complained that the character of Gandalf lacks the requisite regal presence. (It seems that Ian McKellen can sleep soundly.) At the end of the matinee last Sunday, the audience saved its loudest ovation for Mr. Therriault as Gollum. His Gollum is an homage to, if not an imitation of, Andy Serkis's computer-enhanced portrayal from the movies. That said, Therriault's accomplishments are remarkable, simply because he Photoshops himself into something almost unrecognizably human through nothing more than imagination and physical prowess.

"I really enjoyed it, and I think it stayed faithful to the important story lines of Tolkien's books," says Andy Tavares, an accountant. "The most important points of the plot are there. And the set and costumes and music are all amazing."

A long way from Limerick

The $25 million production comes at the end of a long journey for producer Wallace, formerly of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group. In 2002 he sought out film producer Saul Zaentz, who had acquired the film and stage rights to Tolkien's work. It took a year to piece together a deal. Wallace then brought in the Mirvishes - Ed and son David, Toronto's leading theatrical impresarios - and concert promoter Michael Cohl.

Wallace has projected more than C$17 million (US$14.8 million) in ticket sales by opening night, which should cheer the municipal and provincial governments, which have invested in the production. The show moves to London later this year and, he hopes, ultimately to Broadway.

The invention and reinvention, writing and rewriting, of "Rings" evokes Wallace's youth in Limerick, Ireland, and the festivals that sparked his interest in theater.

"My mother worked for the local theater festival," he says. "Companies would come in from all over Ireland to stage plays as part of a competition - a different show every night for weeks at a time."

The young Wallace went on to work with the players and crew during the days and as an usher at night. "I suppose that the arc of this production runs much like the arc of my career," he says.

If that arc is like the stage production of "Rings," then it's sure to continue being written - and rewritten.

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