BWW Reviews: Through a Child's Eyes with Wheelock Family Theatre's THE HOBBIT
Sometimes I wish I could still see things through the eyes of a child. I miss the days when a pillow fort could be a dark and endless cave, when a stuffed animal could be a very real, very talkative playmate, and when anyone in costume was automatically magical and mystical. A kid can believe anything, as long as it is told with excitement and authority. Last night, I attended the Wheelock Family Theatre's production of The Hobbit, and I once again wished I was a child.
Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolken, The Hobbit follows Bilbo Baggins as he is recruited for a magical adventure with a powerful wizard, a hoard of dwarves, a magic ring, many different scary creatures, and an evil, monstrous dragon. Although the novel and the relatively recent film tend to be pointed towards older audiences, this was undoubtedly a show for the kids and their families. The cast was a mix of adult actors and children, all equally decked out in beards and sporting Irish accents, chanting dwarfish songs, darting about the multilayered set, and generally making mischief. As the dwarves and Bilbo went along their journey, set out to conquer the evil dragon who had taken over their land and gold, they met many a troublesome creature, spurring sword fights, clever tricks, and magic.
The cast was beautifully integrated and while I was very much aware of the wide range of ages represented, I was never taken out of the action because of it. The child actors held their own, especially in the final battle, where many of the younger cast members participated in rather impressive sword fights. The fight choreography was solid and believable, though never unsafe, which I believe speaks to Ted Hewlett, who choreographed it. The cast was led by Andrew Barbato, who played Bilbo Baggins, and was absolutely delightful. He was hilariously tentative, incredibly present, and (whether intentionally or not) incorporated a terribly endearing vocal crack during moments of distress. He was a strong leader of a strong cast.
The production was visually appealing to adult and child alike, but must have looked truly magical through a young audience member's eyes. I do not imagine it is the easiest show to design, since the play spans many different landscapes, but Matthew T. Lazure did so brilliantly, coming up with a gorgeous stone based piece, with multiple platforms and mysterious openings, perfect for endless locations and activities. The lights, by Scott Bolman, were beautiful as well, changing colors for each different land, and changing drastically with any and all uses of magic. The most impressive technical aspect, I must say, may have been the dragon at the very end (no spoilers, I promise). He was talked about throughout the piece, so I knew he was coming, and was nervous about how a giant, regal, and majestic creature was going to be represented on stage. I won't go into too much detail, as the spectacle is worth the admission alone, but it was a sight to see and functioned with ease and believability. Kudos to Marjorie Lusignan who designed him.
The one aspect of the show that distanced me a bit was the costumes. The outfits of Bilbo and the dwarves were amazing, with hilarious detail of hairy shoes and braided beards, but past that, it seemed a bit silly. They were all constructed beautifully, but were definitely geared towards a younger audience. Gandalf's beard teetered on ridiculous, the trolls looked like poodles, and the elves were, for some mysterious reason, decked out in leopard print. As I said, I do not think the costumes were bad by any means; they simply played towards an audience of children.
Perhaps this critique of the costumes comes from the preconceived notions that undoubtedly accompany a show of this nature. I imagine it was a challenge for the artists working on this production to not be influenced by the characters of the novel and, more importantly, of the very famous films in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series. The name "Gandalf" or "Bilbo Baggins" or "Gollum" comes with a specific picture in one's head and I definitely think Wheelock put in a great deal of effort to work against these stereotypes. They did not copy the films or the iconic characters (Gollum's way of speech was the same, but not the same squeaky, creepy voice) at all, but it is still hard to not be expecting what you know. If you are going into this production hoping to see the Lord of the Rings prelude exactly the same but on stage, you will be slightly disappointed. But if you go into it hoping to see a different interpretation of this particular adventure, then you'll be wonderfully entertained.