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Singing Hobbits Wizards and Orcs Oh My

It all started with a simple statement scribbled across a blank page of an examination answer-book: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." Sixty some-odd years and several volumes later, Middle Earth is one of the most well-known and beloved fantasy worlds. Last year, 2005, marked the 50th anniversary of the complete publication of J.R.R.

Tolkien's masterpiece. The Lord of the Rings, a multi-volume epic that followed The Hobbit, was first published in London in 1954, with an American edition following in 1955. This tale of unlikely heroes has been made into a radio play (the BBC's Third Programme aired it in 1956); an animated film (1978); a trilogy of live-action films (2001, 2002, 2003); several video games (1985, 1990, 1992, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004) with more being planned; and now is being made into an ambitious live-theatre musical production. "The responsibility is huge," says Mathew Warchus, the man chosen to direct the stage version of The Lord of the Rings, "but the opportunity is huge as well, because you can do some things you always dreamed of doing on the stage.

" Lord of the Rings opened at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto in February 2006, cost about $27 million (Canadian) to produce and faced many challenges. "People feel so strongly about Tolkien's work," Warchus says. "I studied the books very carefully.

I vowed I would not trivialize the piece in any way, but honor it and perhaps even add something to all the available incarnations of the story." With so many adaptations of the work on hand, why would someone tackle a stage production? "To read the novel is to experience the events of Middle Earth in the mind's eye; to watch the films is to view Middle Earth as though through a giant window. Only in the theatre are you actually plunged into the events as they happen," says Warchus. "The environment surrounds us. We participate. We are in Middle Earth.

" Fans who have seen the preview agree. One said, "It was unlike reading or watching Middle Earth, it was like being there!" The biggest question, however, was why a musical? Do we really want Frodo to sing, orcs to dance? "We have not attempted to pull the novel towards the standard conventions of musical theatre," says Warchus, "but rather to expand those conventions so that they will accommodate Tolkien's material." There is "music virtually the whole way through," says Kevin Wallace, producer of the show, "Like in the books, the characters in the stage adaptation use songs that are already part of their culture to express themselves. They do not sing as in a traditional musical, . but as in a culture with a strong singing tradition, they use music as part of their everyday life." The music is a collaborative composition of A.

R. Rahman, a composer from India, Värttinä, a vocal group from Finland, and Christopher Nightengale, the show's musical supervisor. Since, Tolkien used Finnish as a basis for Elvish, having a Finnish group as part of the musical collaboration has given the music for this production an authentic and unique sound. "It's not really a musical in the tradition sense," Liam Kearns, a fan from Vancouver who traveled to Toronto just to see the show, told The Canadian Press. "It's really a stage extravaganza.

There's music, but it's a dramatic play." When rumors of this production first surfaced, there was fear that the result would be cheesy or would stray too far from the original work. To help keep the adaptation in line with Tolkien's material, Laurie Battle, Head of Licensing at Tolkien Enterprises, worked as Creative Consultant, advising the director and producer directly, as well as pointing the way to further research when necessary.

The effort paid off. "I highly recommend any and every Tolkien fan to watch this production," said one fan who saw the preview. Lord of the Rings is appropriate for children aged 8 and older.

Wallace advises, "People should use their own discretion and bring children who are old enough to enjoy the performance." This is especially true, since it is about three and one-half hours long. Knowing the story and its characters isn't necessary to enjoy the musical, according to Kearns.

You can follow the story, which takes in all three books, even if you don't know the difference between an ent and an orc. Previews of Lord of the Rings started Feb. 4, 2006 and the Gala Opening is scheduled for March 23.

Toronto will be the only place to see this production for at least nine months, when the London production premieres later this year. And Wallace says that Toronto will be the only place to see this musical in North America for at least 18 months. A Kevin Wallace Limited Production, Lord of the Rings is presented by Kevin Wallace and Saul Zaentz, in association with David and Ed Mirvish and Michael Cohl. Tickets, which are $78 or $125 (Canadian), are available at www.lotr.

com or by calling (416) 872-1212 or (800) 461-3333. .

By: C.S. Pothitt

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