Calling all J.R.R. Tolkein geeks. If last year’s Hollywood blockbuster The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey left you dangling, W.T. Woodson High School Theatre Department’s lip-smackin’ The Hobbit, a 1968 dramatization by Patricia Gray, has come to your rescue. And thank goodness live theater is naturally in 3-D, so you won’t need any nerdy glasses.
Charting Middle Earth in a swift two hours, this 100-plus-member troupe mesmerizes by summoning dwarves, goblins, trolls, elves, a wizard, a dragon, a hobbit and whatever creepy creature Gollum is without resorting to clunky technological gimmicks. Their undiluted stagecraft works like a charm. From the riotous colors of the set decoration (Anna Phillips-Brown) and lighting design (Killian Rodgers and Laura Muse) to cinematic stage combat choreography by Craig Lawrence — you’d swear those swords could do serious harm — much of the adventure seems to be in the students’ learning
The plot is middle-school simple: Gentle hobbit Bilbo Baggins (a perky Jake Krauss) is drafted by grizzled wizard Gandalf (droll, 6-foot-3 Jack Carey) and 13 motley dwarves, led by the dashing Thorin, to reclaim treasure from a fearsome dragon thunderously voiced by Carey. Krauss seems born to the title role with outsize bare feet and impish pizzazz, but Nick Loney as Thorin is The Man. He commands the role with Shakespearean dignity, while shades of Rick Astley’s sonorous bass and charisma somehow sneak in.
Among the comically gifted in this cast of nearly 60: Sean McCracken as the portly dwarf Bombur, and Faith Johnson as Bert the troll, who drills the audience, club in hand, on house rules (don’t even think about shining cellphones her way). Also notable: Lara Taylor and Talia Pekari as the inseparable tweedle-dee-dum dwarves, Emily Bubeck as a plucky Dwalin, and Will Everett’s lanky Gollum, a weird cross between a Great Dane and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs possibly speaking in parseltongue.
Artistic Director Terri Hobson stitches it all together with a facile hand and deceptively simple set design: Mountainous train-set tunnels get reconfigured into fantastic landscapes and spooky lairs. Original music by Ryan Taylor impregnates lagging scene changes with more cinematic suspense. Sound design by Zach Hutcheson adds depth with cavernous echo. Technical Director Katie Sosa oversees fog and lighting cues that never miss, such as the hobbit’s bluish followspot to signify when he’s wearing the magic ring.
Isabella Valdes’ well-delineated costume design also dazzles — dwarves wear buccaneer beige blouses and tan pantaloons with capes of hierarchical hues (Thorin in royal blue); goblins appear like gangs from Lord of the Flies but with convincing non-human touches from the hair and makeup department (Derya Pekari and Robyn Smith); Gandalf is in a gradating gray-to-cream cloak with crooked wizard’s hat; frisky elves prance in shades of blue or green; mischievous trees are wrapped in laurels; and trolls date to Neanderthal times with wildly teased locks. Don’t expect to be bowled over by anything akin to storm giants from the movie, but the ghost-puppetry of Smaug the dragon might just follow you home. One is reminded that Woodson won a 2003 Cappie Award for its Little Shop of Horrors puppetry
Director Hobson has a reputation for unexpected delights, including cameos by well-known members of the community like state Sen. Chap Petersen and U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly. For one brush-up rehearsal, eight faculty members, all self-confessed Tolkein geeks, stood in for Baggins, Gandalf, Gollum, the Elven-Queen, Smaug, and trolls. It was not only “fun, but good for the kids,” Hobson said — a lesson in improv as the teachers flubbed or fabricated lines (turning Mirkwood references into Tysons Corner gags, for instance) and the students picked up the slack.
No slacking now: Here’s your chance to see how the story unfolds, without waiting for Peter Jackson to wrap things up in 2014 with six more hours of milking it.
Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Hobbit plays through May 4, 2013 (two performances remain, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.), at W.T. Woodson High School’s Joan C. Bedinger Auditorium – 9525 Main Street, in Fairfax, VA. Purchase tickets online, or buy them at the door.