The Ring Sings

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Fright Knight: A Black Rider seeks the ring

Thus did Saruman unleash his cold fury on the Kingdom of Rohan, dispatching evil Orcs to swarm the mountain fortress of Helm's Deep. Under blood red clouds, Aragorn and men stood against the invading ape-hordes, who loped around on crutches they used like freakish weapons. The elf warrior Legolas mounted a promontory to fire arrows at the Orc targets: FFWWOOSH! FFWWOOSH!

On the stage of Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre a few weeks ago, the new theatrical production of The Lord of the Rings was barreling through a rehearsal of its most complicated scene when the pounding music stopped, the smoke machines fizzled and the 40-ton moving stage whirred to a halt. "Joe," choreographer Peter Darling asks one of the Orc actors, "are you aware you didn't die on Arrow Two? Your crutches have to whack up in the air."

The three-year ordeal of putting J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy onstage involved more than getting each Orc to hit his mark--and to keep from falling into the first row of spectators, as one Orc-tor reportedly did during a preview performance. The show's creative team had a bunch of unique challenges. How to choreograph the great battles Tolkien described. How to visualize the dozen realms in the great saga, and the dozens of characters of many species. How to blend narrative, drama and music in a 3 1/2-hour production--the longest musical this side of Wagner and, at C$28.2 million, the most expensive show on or off Broadway--and do it all without retakes, location shooting or postproduction computer effects.

Most daunting for producer Kevin Wallace, playwright Shaun McKenna, director and co-writer Matthew Warchus, set and costume designer Rob Howell and musical director Christopher Nightingale was the task of satisfying all those Tolkienites whose image of Middle-earth has been shaped by many readings of the sacred text and latterly by Peter Jackson's Oscar-laden film versions.

Well, they're doing fine. The stage version of The Lord of the Rings, which officially opens this Thursday, is a robust, serious, quite faithful transposition of the saga. This is the one LOTR (to use the fans' acronym) you can consume in a single evening and say, with a pleased smile, "Yes. That's it." It captures much of the original work's grandeur, variety--and melancholy, for a vanished, perhaps imaginary age when great evil was met with greater good. For every omnipotent villain there is an even more stalwart, selfless hero. For every bitter betrayal, a boon companion; for every wound, a healing.

And for many of the saga's indelible images, there is an ingenious theatrical equivalent. The eerie strobe light reveals a Black Rider and its steed (a man and puppet on stilts), sending fearful hobbits scurrying. Dead men rise from the Marshes (rendered as a giant silver baggie) to make war against Sauron's legions. The Winnebago-size Shelob advances toward her prey with the help of six puppeteers. In the Mountains of Moria, Gandalf battles the enormous Balrog (an Erector-set confection with steaming orange eyes and a wingspan of close to 10 m) as the sound effects roar, a strong wind gusts from the stage and a blizzard of black confetti blankets the audience. As for Frodo, he not only lives, he sings.

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