Greg Banks had never read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” before Peter Brosius asked him to turn it into a play for the Children’s Theatre Company. That was probably a good thing. It seems Banks wasn’t freighted down by what the Atlantic has called “the legendarium that dominated a genre, changed Western literature and the field of linguistics, created a tapestry of characters and mythology that endured four generations, built an anti-war ethos that endured a World War and a Cold War, and spawned a multibillion-dollar media franchise.”
And served as the foundation stone for “Lord of the Rings,” which led to every mega-fantasy after, up to and including “Game of Thrones” and “Black Leopard Red Wolf.”
Banks wrote a play that’s the opposite of reverent and heavy. It skips and dances and soars on eagles’ wings. It delivers serious and meaningful messages: Be a friend, have courage, keep your promises, don’t be greedy, war is bad, don’t be a nationalist jerk. But it does so with lightness, humor and hope, with a cast of five on a set by Joseph Stanley that looks part Erector set, part Lincoln Logs and on the verge of crashing down.
At the back, two musicians – Victor Zupanc and Bill Olson – perform composer Thomas Johnson’s score for piano, accordion, percussion and woodwinds. There are a half-dozen songs, none long. The only special effects are swinging lights and a bit of smoke.
Tolkien’s story has a ton of characters: hobbits, dwarves, trolls, elves, eagles, goblins, men, birds, spiders, a wizard, a fire-breathing dragon, and a strange, lonely creature named Gollum. How Banks had five actors play them all – actually, four actors, because Dean Holt plays just one role, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins – is explained by the word “become,” which appears often in the stage directions.
Dwarves become trolls become goblins become wolves, then revert to dwarves. Joy Dolo is Gandalf, Bombur the dwarf, a troll, Gollum, and the Elven Queen. (“Hi! I’m the Elven Queen, as if you couldn’t tell.”) H. Adam Harris is Kili the dwarf, a troll, and Smaug the dragon (and a pretty terrifying dragon, too). Becca Hart is Balin the dwarf, a troll, and Bard the bowperson. Reed Sigmund is Thorin, dwarf king under the mountain, and a big, hungry spider besides.
With a quick movement, a change in posture or voice, the addition or removal of a scarf or a coat, and the putting on or taking off of a pair of goggles, one character becomes another. Or you’re asked to believe they’re soaring through the air, strolling through a cave filled with gold, or bobbing down a stream in barrels, and you do. In one scene, Gandalf grabs her own collar and lifts it. Bilbo and Thorin, Kili and Balin do the same. Suddenly they’re all being borne aloft by giant eagles. And in case that’s not entirely clear, they briefly wave their arms like wings.
Banks directed his own adaptation. It’s impossible to imagine how another director might handle stage directions like “Kili becomes the dwarf army.” The play is physically demanding, more than an hour and a half of almost nonstop motion, with a pause for intermission. There’s a lot of jumping, climbing, crouching and running. At one point, Bilbo is crossing from one place to another on a narrow plank when he slips, falls, grabs on, pulls himself up, and keeps walking, as if it’s nothing special. Holt, by the way, was born to play Bilbo.
“The Hobbit” is a very new play and a world premiere. It’s also a very old-fashioned kind of play, with few bells and whistles. And it’s a 21st-century play, with a diverse cast and women taking the place of some male characters. The quick and witty script distills an epic tale into its essentials, sprinkled with silliness. (This is a play for children, after all.) There’s so much going on you have to pay attention, and when you do, you realize your imagination is firing on all cylinders. It’s a good feeling. It makes you want to go home and read a book.
“The Hobbit” continues through April 14. For ages 8 and up. FMI and tickets ($15-79); 612-874-0400.
Today (Thursday, March 21) and Friday at Orchestra Hall: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The Minnesota Orchestra will begin this concert with Libby Larsen’s “Symphony: Water Music” and end it with Strauss’ “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.” Not having known, ages ago, that this would be such a watery spring. On either side of the intermission: Schumann’s Violin Concerto, with young Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova making her Minnesota Orchestra debut, and Schubert’s Symphony in B-minor, “Unfinished.” Austrian-born David Danzmayr is the guest conductor. 11 a.m. today (coffee concert), 8 p.m. tomorrow. FMI and tickets ($26-97). On Saturday at Orchestra Hall, you can hear the Larson, Schubert and Strauss in a casual Symphony in 60 concert with a happy hour. 6 p.m. FMI and tickets ($32; $25 public and $12 student rush available).
Tonight at Mia: Third Thursday: Women Artists. A celebration of women, with pop-up performances, activities, art and music throughout the museum. Monica LaPlante and Nyasia will perform, DJ Towsheen will spin tunes, Chamindika Wanduragala will teach the basics of stop-motion animation and Jayanthi Kyle will lead you through vocal exercises. 6-9 p.m. Free. Here’s an article published yesterday on Medium that will point you toward several works at Mia by female artists. Be sure to visit Sara VanDerBeek’s “Women & Museums” exhibition while you’re there. It’s free.
Friday at the East Side Freedom Library: Davu Seru: “Establishing Place: The Uses of Music, Culture, and History in the Local African American Community.” Composer, drummer, author, North Minneapolis native, Hamline University professor, leader of his own groups and ensembles (one of the latest, the Motherless Dollar Quartet, had an Icehouse residency in February), Seru knows a few things about his topic, and it should be interesting to hear him speak. 7 p.m. Free.
Opens Friday at the Historic Mounds Theatre: Skylark Opera Theatre: “Così Fan Tutte.” Skylark isn’t a new name in Twin Cities opera – the company has been around since 1980 – but’s been a new game since Bob Neu became artistic director in 2016. Nimbly moving from place to place, Skylark has presented a site-specific “Don Giovanni” at the Woman’s Club, Peter Brook’s pared-down, in-your-face “The Tragedy of Carmen” at the Midpointe Event center and the transgender chamber opera “As One” at the North Garden Theatre. Hashtagged #notyourgrandpascosi, Neu’s version of Mozart’s opera will turn a modern lens on the gloriously musical, ingloriously misogynistic story whose title translates as “All women are like that.” If you enjoyed Altiveros and Laurent Kuehln in “Carmen” and Luke Williams in “As One,” you’ll get to see and hear them again in “Così.” This production will take place throughout the theater. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($40-45). Ends Sunday, March 31.
Sunday at Hamline’s Sundin Music Hall: “Pictures in Music.” In the latest installment of Sundin’s new “88s at Sundin” series of concerts centered on the piano, the Ebony, Ivory and Spruce Trio (Charles Kemper, piano; David Methner, clarinet; and Nathan Wilson, violin) will present a reimagining of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and other art-related music. FMI and tickets ($20, $8 students).