The "Lord of the Rings" musical, touted as the most expensive stage production yet, met mixed reviews on Friday as critics applauded its leaping orcs and menacing dark riders, but got lost in the tangled plots of Middle Earth.
The 55-strong cast slipped into 500 costumes and engaged in fight scenes and acrobatics atop a 40-ton, computer-controlled stage floor featuring 17 elevators, which spun and rose amid magic and illusion.
For all the feverish activity at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre, the show based on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy drew only one standing ovation in more than three hours, but many in the audience called it breathtaking and spectacular.
The C$28 million ($24 million U.S.) show's technology was of little help to a "largely incomprehensible" musical version of Tolkien's masterpiece, said Ben Brantley of The New York Times, one of several out-of-town critics who flew to Toronto to see the show that is expected to move on to London and Broadway.
"Everyone and everything winds up lost in this ... adaptation of Tolkien's cult-inspiring trilogy of fantasy novels," Brantley said. "That includes plot, character and the patience of most ordinary theatergoers."
Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times said, "Pity the production can't be judged exclusively on its design, it would be roundly considered a hit."
But he added that despite the show's shortcomings and desperate need to be cut, "The good news for investors is that commercially the project will surely pay off.
"Riding the coattails of Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning movie trilogy with its global gross of $3 billion and counting, this kind of parasitic extravaganza has a built-in audience. Today Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre, tomorrow London's West End, followed by the rest of the premium-ticket-buying world."
Time magazine declared the show a "definitive megamusical" while the Times of London branded it "A stirring triumph of theatrical magic." "With some fine tuning, this tale could hold its audience in total thrall," wrote the Times' Sam Marlowe.
And even the Tolkien family was impressed. "I thought it was a beautiful show and I was impressed," said Rachel Tolkien, the author's granddaughter. "Everything in the book that to me is important, or really moved me, is on the stage," she told Reuters.
Local critics were less enthused.
"'The Lord of the Rings' ... may boast of its record-breaking cost, but it still looks a lot like unfinished business," Toronto Globe and Mail critic Kamal Al-Solaylee said. "The blueprint for the adaptation, a heroic, if misguided, undertaking billed as a hybrid of drama, music and spectacle, is now in place. All it needs is an engaging storytelling approach, an emotional arc, credible performances and a more coherent musical score."
The story follows Frodo Baggins, played by James Loye, and his quest to save Middle Earth by destroying the ring of power during three acts that take the audience through the dream-like and misty Mines of Moria, Forest of Fangorn and to the final battle at Mount Doom.
The show, which is scheduled to go to London in 2007, still has a lot to prove and much will depend on the next few months, said lead producer Kevin Wallace, formerly in-house producer with Andrew Lloyd Webber's London-based The Really Useful Group.