BWW Reviews: THE HOBBIT Goes To The Theatre And Back Again

Some time last year, Playhouse Merced christened its 2012-2012 season "There and Back Again." Of course, the title could describe the journey any show takes over the course of two hours. But it seems appropriate that the chosen name should find its base in the play version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," for Merced's production, now playing weekends through February 17, displays some of the company's finest actors and scenic and lighting design. The rarely performed story easily promises those who miss it plenty of reason to look back and wish, "If I only I had gone there and back again."

Many will be familiar with the famed fantasy, which made its way to the big screen in the first of Peter Jackson's trilogy follow up to "The Lord of The Rings." Patricia Gray offers a simplified, two-act adaptation of "The Hobbit." Time necessitates the absence of some details, as well as the shortened version of others, but her homely play does a wonderful job of telling the most important pieces of the plot. Gandalf the wizard convinces Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, to join him and several dwarves on a quest to take back the gold hoarded and stolen by dragon Smaug. Along the way, the unlikely crew meets some nasty trolls, aggressive goblins and territorial elves. And it all fits nicely in the intimate space of Playhouse Merced, exceptionally staged by director Mike Kittel.

In front of the green, raw hills and mountains that comprise the sets, a lively cast's only fault is perhaps its exciting energy, which sometimes masks the dialogue with loud background action. But that matters little when the energy serves the story so well outside of those minimal moments.

Zachary Ellis, who also voices the dragon, plays the wizard Gandalf with delectable, playful facial expressions and a wizened character voice that audiences warm up to very quickly. Viewers get an equal treat from Jake Levi Nelson as Bilbo Baggins. Nelson's good-natured Bilbo gets himself into plenty of sticky situations, but always comes out with bravery and smarts, especially in a riddle match with the contemptible Gollum. Jeshamon Volkerts steals the show with one of the most committed and convincing performances ever seen by valley audiences. Volkerts crawls about on all fours with amazing agility, going into raging fits with shameless abandon.

Stephen Mouillesseaux makes a strong and relatable Thorin, the head of the dwarves. A strong cast of dwarves follows behind him, some of whom resemble the lighthearted spirit of Peter Pan's lost boys. David Elam, James Dominguez and Rachel Rodrigues delight with their haughty trolls. Bethany Blondin plays the Elven Queen. And a cast of children play various roles throughout, welcoming visitors as young hobbits before the show and later chasing after the dwarves as the warrior goblins.

The cast and crew offer a unique experience, more like a cherished reading of the beloved tale than like a big screen movie with special affects. And now that the film has begun to make its way out of the movie theatres, Tolkien fans can get their hobbit fix at Playhouse Merced. It's definitely worth the trip.


Through February 17
Playhouse Merced

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From This Author Harmony Wheeler