Matthew T. Lazure’s creative costumes and elegant, two-tiered set stand out as the stars of the Wheelock Family Theatre’s charming production of “The Hobbit,” which runs through Nov. 24. Lazure doesn’t need the film’s elaborate computer-generated animation, because he includes just the right elements to spark the imagination and create the right mood for Bilbo Baggins’s unexpected adventure.
Patricia Gray’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy opens with a narrator asking the audience, “Are you ready for a story?” to which the eager children at the performance I attended responded with a resounding “yes!” This device of direct address allows Lazure and director Shelley Bolman to build the world of Middle-earth incrementally, starting with the simplest costume pieces (fur on shoes to suggest the hairy Hobbit feet), all the way to the fearsome dragon Smaug, complete with shimmering red scaly skin and glittering yellow eyes in an oversize head.
The otherworldly creatures are balanced by the down-to-earth attitude of the story’s reluctant adventurer, Bilbo Baggins. Andrew Barbato offers a pitch-perfect performance, allowing us to watch the fussy, nervous homebody Bilbo grow in self-confidence as the adventure unfolds. Within minutes of meeting the wizard Gandalf (Calvin Braxton), Bilbo’s snug hobbit home is overrun by 13 dwarves (a talented collection of child actors who take on an assortment of accents from the British Isles) embarking on a quest to retrieve the gold stolen from them by the dragon.
As they head to the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug guards the treasure, the dwarves and hobbit weave in, out, and around Lazure’s set, which, with its many stairs and multiple doorways, shifts easily from outdoor mountain setting to dark cave passageways. Along the way, the group confronts trolls (indicated by the simplest wigs and leggings), goblins (frightening masks), spiders (brilliant outfits that make a creepy and effective impression), elves (patterned tights and tops), and Smaug, a truly intimidating force.
While all of these add to the sense of otherworldly adventure, Lazure’s most effective creature design combines with terrific acting when Gollum appears. Stephen Benson is remarkably agile, suggestively slimy, and both pathetic and threatening. The banter between Gollum and Bilbo allows both characters to develop and the duo’s riddle challenge becomes one of the highlights of the show.
Bilbo’s accidental discovery of a magic ring — that Gollum had long possessed — gives Bilbo the power to disappear, which he uses to his advantage to rescue the dwarves and win back the treasure. The onstage adventure culminates in Ted Hewlett’s beautifully choreographed swordfight, with lots of swords clanging all over Lazure’s two-level set.
While there are scenes that work beautifully, director Bolman struggles with the pacing and some unevenness in his cast. Transitions between scenes are slow, which diffuses the dramatic tension built into the story. But in the end, the magic of Tolkien’s story, realized in Lazure’s deft designs, entertains the kids in the audience who are ready for adventure, and the adults who appreciate the simple special effects.