After filmmaker Peter Jackson's massive Lord of the Rings trilogy and his absurdly inflated three-movie Hobbit, it's easy to forget that our introduction to this high fantasy came in the form of a book for young readers. The Children's Theatre Company's new adaptation of that 1937 novel recaptures the sense of discovery you might have thought this well-known story had lost forever.
Greg Banks writes in a program note that he hadn’t even read The Hobbit until he was approached to adapt and direct this play. That may help to explain the production’s welcome lack of reverence: This is a Hobbit free of Anglophilia, with more concern about how these iconic characters function in the story than with how closely they resemble any previous imagining.
Banks, who’s worked magic with several previous CTC creations, has a gift for efficiently establishing tone and relationships, with a winking meta-theatrical style that implicitly invites kids to share the actors’ fun. Bilbo may escape with the ring, but by turning a stage into an enchanted kingdom for a couple of hours, we’re all getting away with something together.
Dean Holt was born to play Bilbo Baggins, the humble hobbit who’s enlisted by the wizard Gandalf (Joy Dolo) and a company of dwarves to serve as “burglar” during their raid on Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves’ ancestral treasure is being hoarded by a vile dragon (H. Adam Harris). Holt also serves as storyteller, becoming the viewers’ guide and proxy along the company’s perilous journey.
Channeling Brando, Reed Sigmund plays Thorin Oakenshield, the exiled dwarf king whose anger and pain blinds him to the needs of others. This Hobbit reminds you why the book continues on after the dragon’s been confronted: Thorin and Bilbo have to reckon with their actions and their responsibilities.
Author J.R.R. Tolkien well understood that the end of a war brings new, more complex challenges; an upcoming biopic will explore the ways in which his WWI experience informed his fantasy writing. Scenic designer Joseph Stanley evokes this association with a set of skewed girders, and Annie Cady’s costumes suggest early 20th-century expeditioners.
Becca Hart (making her welcome and wonderful CTC debut) rounds out the ensemble of five, unless you also count the front-row audience members who are sometimes described as the rest of the 13 dwarves. Only Holt sticks to a single character, but the production is so well-choreographed there’s rarely a moment of confusion as the actors cycle rapidly among the heroes and villains who populate this epic adventure.
If there’s a spot where the show drifts too far afield, it’s in the realm of music. Thomas Johnson’s songs are unnecessary at best, distractingly cheesy at worst. Among all the kingdoms of Middle-earth, the realm of Leonard Nimoy’s “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” is one we could have skipped.
Children’s Theatre Company
2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-874-0400; through April 14