TCTC brings Tolkien's classic tale to life
In my time covering live theatre in East Texas, I've not seen another show as ambitious as Tyler Civic Theatre Center's production of "The Hobbit."
Leading up to the initial theatrical release of "The Fellowship of the Ring," Peter Jackson stated that it had taken technology decades to reach the point where it could faithfully replicate the images that author J.R.R. Tolkien had conjured in his "Lord of the Rings" stories. By all accounts, he succeeded in crafting three classic films that were borderline miraculous in how well they adapted the material, though he had the full backing of a Hollywood studio and hundreds of millions of dollars to aid him in doing so.
The crew at Tyler Civic Theatre Center has considerably fewer resources at their disposal, and yet they are no less passionate about bringing to life one of Tolkien's stories than Jackson. Under the co-direction of Susan Gage and Justin Purser, via an adaptation by Patricia Gray, this production manages to capture the spirit of Tolkien's classic children's tale as best as one could hope for given the limitations present.
Obviously there have been parts excised or significantly altered, but the core of this adventure story remains in place with inimitable wizard Gandalf the Grey (Murray Parks) luring the home-loving Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Clay Rowden) into the biggest adventure of his life. A pack of dwarves, led by the proud and pompous Thorin Oakenshield (Ryan Castner), aim to take back a massive stash of treasure guarded by Smaug, a fierce dragon living inside the Lonely Mountain who long ago had pillaged the treasure from a dwarven kingdom.
Along the way, the party encounters fierce trolls, evil goblins, heroic eagles, noble elves and an army of men. We also see the first appearance of Gollum (Thomas Surles) and the encounter between he and Bilbo that will forever alter the fate of Middle Earth.
This adaptation keeps the episodic nature of Tolkien's novel, which is a significant factor in helping the story make a workable translation to the stage. A sprawling adventure that hops around to broadly diverse locations is hardly conducive to a stage-bound production, but the episodic nature of this particular story allows for the transition from scene to scene to be much more forgiving.
Scenes feel complete even if they make a very direct push forward in the overall narrative. This also makes the uncharacteristically high number of scene changes a bit easier to deal with. There are a couple of spots where the episodes feel a little jarring (the final battle just seems to sort of happen with little in the way of a transition into it), but overall this is a solid reworking of a relatively large bit of material to adapt.
There's also much to enjoy from a performance standpoint. The cast is almost exclusively youngsters (something of a necessity when the vast majority of the characters are essentially tiny people), but the leads shoulder well the burden of carrying the narrative. Rowden is the standout of the bunch, providing a solid performance as Bilbo, taking him from timid homebody to sturdy adventurer in fine form. Parks is respectable as well in the role of Gandalf and seems to play up the wily side of the character more than what some folks may be used to if their only exposure to the role is via the films.
However, the most memorable performance is delivered by Surles as Smeagol/Gollum. Andy Serkis' performance of the part in the film is indelible (just about everyone, it seems, thinks they can do a decent imitation of his voice) and the easy thing to do would have been to emulate that work. But Surles avoids the trap of mere imitation and provides a portrayal of this iconic character that manages to feel both familiar and distinct.
It can, admittedly, be slightly giggle-inducing at points to see a 10-year-old girl sporting a bushy fake beard and carrying an axe but I'd be lying if I said that wasn't part of the charm of watching this production.
That said, the costumes overall look good and someone went to grand lengths to craft a gigantic dragon's head for Smaug. The set design is sparse out of necessity due to the large number of scene shifts and changeovers, but there's clearly been a lot of care and love put into what's there.
There's no denying the limitations present, but despite that this is still a fun production to watch, and it's sort of fitting that children would be the ones to bring to life Tolkien's story for children. There's an innocence, of sorts, that is brought out as such that benefits the lighter side of this fantasy world the author created.
"The Hobbit" continues its run tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Tyler Civic Theatre Center. For tickets and additional performance dates, call 903-592-0561 or visit www.tylercivictheatre.com