First Stage's 'The Hobbit' is a triumph of storytelling
When it comes to the hero's journey, few characters illustrate the refusal of the call as well as Bilbo Baggins, who would much prefer his armchair and a cup of tea to fighting vicious goblins and a sulfurous dragon.
But by the end of "The Hobbit," Bilbo has schooled even a king in what courage is — and the nature of what is truly worth fighting for.
First Stage's production of J.R.R. Tolkien's story, using a stage adaptation by Greg Banks, emphasizes character, storytelling and the power of both the actors' and audience's imaginations.
Director Jeff Frank has staged this show in the round in the 142-seat Goodman Hall in the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, 325 W. Walnut St. Teen performers Leo Madson and Angel Rivera alternate as Bilbo; the other roles are played by adult professional actors Matt Daniels, Elyse Edelman, Jamey Feshold, Shammen McCune and actor-musician Natalie Ford. I saw a performance with Madson as Bilbo.
Recruited by the wizard Gandalf (McCune), Bilbo joins an expedition led by the dwarf king Thorin (Daniels) to reclaim an ancestral treasure hoarded by the dragon Smaug. At nearly every turn, the skeptical Thorin hazes or discourages the timid hobbit, but through his actions, Bilbo grows in confidence and wins the trust of traveling companions Kili (Feshold) and Balin (Edelman).
They face off against hungry trolls, evil goblins, giant spiders, haughty elves and Smaug himself. Actors Madson, Daniels, McCune and company create setting, antagonists and weapons through simple found and scrounged materials: planks, chairs, cloth. Upside-down umbrellas with strategic fabric cuts become walking spiders; yards of bubble wrap make the carapaces of the gluttonous trolls. Director Frank's emphasis is on the quality of the actors' storytelling to make us transform these homely elements in our minds.
This performing style reflects the mythic nature of Tolkien's tale; the headlamps, mismatched work clothes and improvised materials sometimes suggest a post-apocalyptic environment. Both milieus fit the story.
"The Hobbit" is perfectly pitched at its intended audience, people 8 and older. It has more humor than you might think, especially in early scenes.
Madson holds his own with the grown-up actors; his narration is fluid, his actions expressive. As Gandalf, McCune is commanding; in a short scene as Gollum, she's stunning. It's been 22 years since she last performed in Milwaukee. I hope she'll be back a lot sooner.
Fernanda Douglas composed the folkish tunes. Playing guitar, music director Ford performed throughout, with cast members singing and occasionally picking up instruments.
If you go
First Stage performs "The Hobbit" through March 5 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, 325 W. Walnut St. For tickets, visit firststage.org or call (414) 267-2961.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: First Stage's 'The Hobbit' is a triumph of storytelling