A really big show for the little people
by Richard Ouzounian
The Toronto Star – October 23, 2000
Let there be joy throughout the Middle Kingdom.
The adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which opened on Saturday night, is the most spectacular show I have ever seen at Young People’s Theatre.
From the moment you enter the auditorium, the grandeur of this production is made clear by the Glenn Davidson set, which fills the space with a sense of long-ago splendour.
Then the unmistakeable silhouette of Gandalf, the great wizard, is revealed against a lilac sky and you are in a place of magic for the next two hours.
I have to admit that I have never been a fan of the Tolkien epics. While I admire the scope of the work, and the creativity that it took to give birth to a complete mythology, the actual result leaves me cold.
Stylistically, I’ve always found it an unholy mixture of William Shakespeare and Walt Disney, and I have trouble with heroes who announce in moments of high drama: “I am armed with an elfish blade.”
Having confessed to my Tolkienphobia, imagine how effective this version must be if it held me enthralled for most of its length. I can only imagine how sublime it would seem to a true believer.
The story of The Hobbit – when you strip away all the fairytale trappings – is a primal one: the good guys reclaim the treasure that the bad guys stole from them.
The fact that the good guys are dwarves and hobbits and the bad guys are goblins and trolls may give the narrative some extra zip, but one of the wise things about Kim Selody’s adaptation is that it never forgets the forward thrust of the basic tale.
It’s a bit slow starting, but once it gets going, hang on to your elfish hats.
Basically, we follow a sweet-natured soul named Bilbo Baggins (the titular Hobbit) as he leads an expedition of dwarves to reclaim their lost gold. The adventures and trials this little party undergo are partly rooted in the world of medieval chivalry, and partly in the land of misty fantasy.
There are giant eagles, loathesome spiders and haughty elf lords, but the archetypes will resonate with children who have been weaned on Star Wars and Pokémon. And they’ll hear it all expressed with a much higher level of linguistic skill.
Above all else, they will be captured by the sumptuous look of the production. In addition to Davidson’s awe-inspiring set, there is the bounty of Bonnie Beecher’s lighting, with its distant mauve skies, poison-green dungeons, and blessed golden sunsets.
Add to this the wealth of costumes from Lori Hickling, which bring the world of Tolkien to perfect life, and a cast of eight seems to do the work of 80.
Director Jim Warren is the true wizard here, mixing it all together to form a persuasive otherworldly potion. His visual sense is stunning, his patterns of movement ever-changing, and the performances he has brought out of his cast have mythic scope as well as reality.
Herbie Barnes is the most winsome of hobbits, and his Bilbo keeps tugging at our heart with his repeated mantra of “Eggs, bacon, toast” whenever things get dire (as they frequently do).
Lorne Cardinal has a strong presence as Gandalf (and an uncanny resemblance to Laurence Fishburne), while Greg Kramer nearly steals the show as the serpentine Gollum.
I must confess that the final section of the narrative is a bit of a letdown, because it calls for characters (a giant dragon) or events (the battle of four armies) that this particular production can’t possibly realize. There is skillful stylization, but one becomes aware of the cleverness involved in hiding the lack of numbers.
Tolkien also intends some strongly dark resonances about mankind and war to come out in the final section, and this cast – good as it is in the rest of the show – is not up to those demands.
But most of the journey is brushed with the kind of confidence and skill it thrills you to see at any theatre, and pleases you even more when it’s aimed at the young.
My 11-year old son, Michael, couldn’t stop talking about the play, and in the end, I suppose that is the best recommendation I can give The Hobbit, elfish blade and all.