Don’t Fear the Beards: THE HOBBIT

Andrew Barbato and Stephen Benson. Photo credit: Wheelock Facebook page.

Andrew Barbato and Stephen Benson. Photo credit: Wheelock Facebook page.

Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre
Based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien
Adapted for the stage by Patricia Gray
Directed by Shelley Bolman
Original score by Will Holshouser
Fight choreography by Ted Hewlett

October 25th – November 24th, 2013
200 The Riverway
Boston, MA
Wheelock on Facebook

Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Boston) Picture a staging of The Hobbit without copious CGI, but with kids in cute beards rocking outrageous Scottish accents.  Could be good, could be terrible, right?

The thing is that J.R.R. Tolkien, bless his bookish heart, knew jack about pacing a story, and cared even less.  The Hobbit, here interpreted by Patricia Gray, is an episodic yarn that meanders here and there, getting bogged down into bedtime storytelling action by the time the band hits the Misty Mountains.  It works perfectly as bedtime fare for geeks just for precisely this reason; the thing reads like a really rocking night of Dungeons and Dragons.  Things just happen, and your characters get bailed out by the dungeon-master (Tolkien) every now and then to keep the story moving.

That’s what makes this story so tricky.  It’s similar to why people stage a lot of Huck Finn instead of Tom Sawyer.  Huck has a journey, and Tom just goes all over the place.  To make a successful Hobbit, you’ve either got to dazzle us with 3-D dragon-fire and Ian McKellen being badass, or give us a central story on which to hang our hats.

Thankfully, Wheelock Family Theatre’s staging of The Hobbit goes for the latter, and it makes it through some tight scrapes to arrive at a good adventure of a production.  Director Shelley Bolman works wonders to help the audience focus on the sweet coming-of-age story of mild-mannered Bilbo Baggins (Andrew Barbato), a hobbit who thinks he wants to be left alone until adventure lands on his doorstep.  Bolman does an amazing job keeping Bilbo front and center, and traffic planners should study her staging to see how she deftly maneuvers a huge cast in and out of chaotic scenes while still keeping the play’s adventurous heartbeat intact.

Barbato also deserves much of the credit.  Through his interpretation, I finally see Bilbo’s character arc fully illuminated for the first time.  Bilbo’s restless energy is always apparent, even when he tries to flee from a wizard offering him an adventure, and Barbato deftly shows the little hobbit has too much bravado and too little impulse control to avoid greatness.  There is a sweet manic quality to his performance, and even Bilbo’s mild ravings near the end feel like that of an exuberant child whose dreams we don’t want to crush, even if we wish he would go to bed.

Stephen Benson also sets the table nicely for Barbato as both a narrator and a tragic, tragic Gollum.  The height of tension comes when these two heroes/antiheros match wits to the death at the fateful moment Bilbo finds the one ring that gets the whole Peter Jackson thing going.

Look, I won’t lie…things just get dumb when we hit the Misty Mountains, (“Trolls, goblins, and spiders…oh my!”) but the deft sword action at least succeeds in keeping boys awake in the audience. And the adaptation is hard to follow at times if you haven’t already read the book.  (Some archer just starts shouting about his last arrow and then Smaug yells…and….what?)  But there are some great scenes that bring alive Tolkien’s wry dialogue and comedic timing.  It’s worth the price of admission alone to see Bilbo’s hobbit-hole home invaded by a pack of dwarves.  You can almost hear the fire crackling and taste the gushing ale.

And since the whole story is episodic anyway, staging a few great moments to go along with a lot of good ones makes this production a great Tolkien adaptation.

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