The Hobbit at the Wheelock Family Theatre

by Michele Markarian

‘The Hobbit’, Dramatized by Patricia Gray, directed by Shelley Bolman. Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 The Riverway, Boston, MA, through November 24.

A quest that takes a young man from the safety of his home to a strange and dangerous land, fraught with spiders, goblins, trolls, and a greedy dragon, as well as the usual ups and downs of fitting in with a group, the safety of its members – all big, scary stuff for little people.  Yet the Wheelock Family Theatre production of The Hobbit manages to keep it upbeat and fantastical, with the right blend of humor and pathos, and some very appealing costumes and characters. The play’s opening scene is joyful; kids are playing liberally onstage, taking full advantage of the versatile set, which is designed to look like a rocky landscape.  They are asked if they would like to be told a story, thus setting the stage for the tale that follows. 

For anyone who hasn’t read The Hobbit, the plot’s protagonist, a content and somewhat nervous hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, is talked into accompanying a band of thirteen dwarves to reclaim their birthright and treasure, Lonely Mountain, from the dragon Smaug by a wizard named Gandalf (played by the melodious-voiced Calvin Braxton). Although the dwarves aren’t receptive to the idea of Bilbo as their “burglar”, as they call him, and despite Bilbo’s own resistance, he joins them on the journey.  Along the way, they encounter a series of dangerous characters and more than once, their lives are threatened.  Gandalf, who manages to pull them from peril at the last minute more than once, disappears on a personal matter and the dwarves and Bilbo must fend for themselves.  With the help of a mysterious gold ring, Bilbo is able to become invisible, something that comes in handy when his fellow dwarves are imprisoned.  The final battle for the treasure between the Dwarves, the Elves, and the Goblins results in victory for the Dwarves and Elves, but not before Thorin, the Dwarf leader played well by Mark S. Cartier, dies.  Afterwards, Bilbo is free to begin his long journey home.

It’s a jewel of a show, from the opening scene of happy children playing to the last, where Bilbo is musing on his journey home, with first-rate costumes and lighting that augment a very adaptable set. As Bilbo Baggins, Andrew Barbato is adorable and sprightly, with an open, childlike demeanor that kids can relate to. His desire to remain safe within his comfort zone, while at the same time longing for adventure and for doing right by his fellow creatures, is poignantly expressed.  The pixie-like Gollum, played by the hilarious Stephen Benson, practically slithers onstage from a hole in the ground and delights the young audience with his riddles and nonsensical banter.  Monique Nicole McIntyre, as the Elven Queen, inhabits the stage with her voice and commanding presence. 

The Dwarven, all played by local children, are so good I had to check my program to make sure they were actually students and not professionals.  Honestly, I have low expectations of children onstage, but these kids are exceptional. They are focused, know their objectives, use the fourth wall and stay in character.  Kudos to Danny Bryck, the Dwarven dialect coach, as the accents are strong and consistent, as well as easy to understand. The costumes, designed by Matthew T. Lazure, who also designed the set, are really remarkable – notably the Spiders, who are all equipped with hairy, daddy longlegs, the Trolls, done up like menacing poodles, and the Goblins, wearing decorative bodysuits that are works of art. Scott Balman’s excellent lighting design works well against the stark but layered set, which included tunnels, steps, and arches. 

The Hobbit is a complicated story, and not easy to do in under two hours.  For the sake of time it has been condensed, which is sensible, but at times the action felt a little hurried, kind of like Gone With the Wind – the movie, not the book, where one large event tumbled into another. But the children in the audience who were in attendance the day I went seemed to understand everything, and didn’t fidget during the show, which is a compliment for any theater production.  And when the lights came up and Smaug the dragon appeared onstage, there was a collective and audible gasp from the audience.  I won’t say anymore – you will have to go and see Smaug yourself, in Act II.  Like the rest of the show, Smaug’s beauty is so impressive you don’t even think of the danger.

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