Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Indeed, The Hobbit has been universally acclaimed since its publication in 1937, when some viewed it as World War I veteran Tolkien's allegory on the hollowness of victory at war. More recently, a three-part film adaptation of the Hobbit released from 2012-2014 was a box office smash. Between commercial entertainments and the literary merits of the book, placed on many a list of best works for young readers, the characters and adventures devised by Tolkien over eighty years ago have been passed from generation to generation, each putting their spin on what are truly timeless tales.
Children's Theatre Company has now brought The Hobbit to stage in a gloriously wrought world-premiere adaptation by Greg Banks, who in the past has adapted such classics as "Pinocchio," "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "Antigone," "Romeo and Juliet," and "The Jungle Book." The production has a musical score by Thomas Johnson which accompanies a good deal of the action, well-synched to the dramatic tension of the moment, and which on occasion breaks out in song, with Banks and Johnson collaborating on lyrics. Musicians Victor Zupanc and Bill Olson are a key presence throughout, as they provide the soundscape that is an essential component of the story.
Banks' telling of The Hobbit, which he also directs, casts the titular character, a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, as the narrator, as well as the reluctant hero of the story. At frequent intervals, Bilbo (perfectly cast Dean Holt) turns to the audience to describe his internal response to a situation, or things going on beyond the scope of what we see on stage. The other charactersand if you read the book, you know there are manyare played by just four actors, who all must be genetically certified chameleons as far as I can tell, for they transition from elf to giant to queen to spider, or whatever else is called for. Along with Holt, these fourJoy Dolo, H. Adam Harris, Becca Hart and Reed Sigmundbring an enthusiasm for the joy of storytelling to the stage that is positively infectious.
The storytelling begins in hobbit Bilbo's underground home. Hobbits, for the unversed, are related to human beings but are about half the size, with fur atop their feet and leathery soles. They are prone to colorful attire, a shy nature, and an appetite for creature comforts, especially food. Bilbo's quiet is interrupted by the wizard Gandalf (Dolo) who coerces the hobbit to join a band of thirteen dwarves as their "burglar" on a quest to reclaim Lonely Mountain from the usurper, a fierce fire-breathing dragon called Smaug (Harris). Bilbo has no desire to travel, let alone face such obvious dangers, andas he points outhas never burgled, but nonetheless, ends up on a life-changing adventure.
The dwarves are led by Thorin (Sigmund), son of the last dwarf king, who left a fortune in gold deep within Lonely Mountain, no small part of Thorin's drive to reclaim their homeland. Thorin, unconvinced that Gandalf has chosen a suitable burglar, gives Bilbo a hard time as they face off against monstrous trolls, fearsome elves, giant spiders, wolves, and other dangers, culminating in a great war. In the course of the journey, Bilbo finds that despite his aversion to risk-taking, he possesses courage, cleverness, and a sense of justice, becoming a leader in his own right without losing his humility.
Banks treats the saga with affection, yet maintains a light touch, allowing the actors to have fun with their charactersall but Sigmund's portrayal of Thorin, who is as Type A a dwarf as ever there was. He uses simple gestures to convey everything we are intended to see. When our intrepid band of dwarves are rescued from peril by a flock of eagles, the actors jerk the back collar of their shirts up high, for all the world dangling from the talons of the great birds.
As Bilbo Baggins, Holt demonstrates early on the hobbit's self-deprecating, comfort-seeking, conflict-avoiding nature, good but faint hearted, then raises a glow from within as he draws upon inner strength he didn't know he possessed, uses his wits to outsmart fearsome enemies, and stands against staunch authority to defend virtue and fairness. We see him delight in discovering what he is capable of, and we share that delight. Dolo is a low-key Gandalf, using her wizardly power without fanfare; a vain and scheming Gollum who gambles with her wits to defend a magical ring; and a composed, imperious Elvin Queen. Harris is fabulous as the fearsome dragon, and Hart brings earnest sincerity to the dwarf Balin, voicing regard for Bilbo's rising capabilities in spite of Thorn's efforts to belittle the hobbit. As Thorin, Sigmund radiates arrogance, yet allows us to sympathize with his desire to reclaim his lost birthright. When he goes too far, unwilling to yield to anyone's claims but his own, Sigmund makes visible the corrupting effect of power. He also is one heck of a frightful giant spider.
Joseph Stanley has devised a fantastic set for the escapade, a collection of platforms of differing heights, linked by bridges and ladders, which become treetops or mountain crags, underground tunnels or forested thickets, abetted always by Nancy Schertler's wondrously fluid lighting. The cast marches, climbs, leaps and crawls about the setting, full of zip and daring-do. Annie Cady's costumes are imaginative and functional, easily transforming an actor from a dwarf to a troll, back to dwarf, then Bard, the human archer, on and on. The frightening characters look scarily frightening, but with a touch of whimsy that avert young audience members from becoming distraught, with high honors to the tattered banners that serve as wings for the dragon Smaug.
This is theater as truly great storytelling. When the dwarves try to decipher a map with its legend written in moon-lettersletters that can only be seen in the light of the moonwe see the text suddenly appear. Those of us who have been around this block before know it is being projected from the rear of the theater, and appreciate the effect. But several young audience members, not so jaded, let rise audible "oohs" in the theater when those moon letters appeared. That is how to hook young people on the magic of theater. There are just enough such effects to provide a richly satisfying enactment of the story, yet pared down enough so that we are moved by the heart of the piece, not its technology.
As for what The Hobbit tells us, when Gandalf is still working on Bilbo, persuading him to join the dwarves on their quest, he beseeches the hobbit, "You don't want to let them down, do you?" Bilbo hesitates, then, utters a drawn out. "Nooo," to which Gandalf snaps back "There! That feeling! That's your courage." A tale that tells us courage is not doing what comes easily, with success guaranteed, but taking on a challenge in spite of our fears, has something to say to young and old alike.
The Hobbit, through April 14, 2019, at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $15.00 - $84.00. Ten percent discount for purchase of six or more tickets. Discounts available for children up to age 17, full time college students, seniors (age 65 and up) and military families. Rush Tickets: Starting two hours prior to each performance, any unsold seats will go on sale to for $15 each at the CTC Ticket Office, in person only. For tickets call 612-874-0400 or go to childrenstheatre.org. Best enjoyed by ages 8 and up.
Based on the book "The Hobbit" by J.R..R. Tolkien; Adopted for the stage and Directed by: Greg Banks; Music: Thomas Johnson; Lyrics: Greg Banks and Thomas Johnson; Movement Director: Joe Isenberg; Music Supervisor: Thomas Johnson; Scenic Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Annie Cady; Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler; Sound Design: Sten Severson; Dramaturg: Miriam Weisfeld; Stage Manager: Chris Schweiger; Assistant Director: Lauren Casson; Assistant Stage Manager: Shelby Reddig; Stage Manager Intern: Madeline Scott; Assistant Lighting Designer: Smaida Mara Rizzotto.
Cast: Joy Dolo (Gandalf/Bombur/Troll/Gollum/Elven Queen/ensemble), H. Adam Harris (Kili/Troll/Smaug/ensemble), Becca Hart (Balin/Troll/Bard/ensemble), Dean Holt (Bilbo Baggins), Bill Olson (woodwinds), Reed Sigmund (Thorin/Spider/ensemble), Victor Zupanc (piano/accordion/ percussion).