A few light bulbs swinging at the end of strings, looking vaguely like shooting stars, are about all that passes for special effects in director Greg Banks’ adaptation of “The Hobbit,” which premiered Friday at the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis.
And those shooting bulbs, part of Nancy Schertler’s evocative lighting scheme, aren’t even all that needed. For Banks, a British writer and director with a knack for theatrical invention and a mastery of storytelling, has brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s elaborate world of warring hobbits and trolls and dwarves to the stage with imaginative flair.
And he does it all with a potently gifted cast of just five actors, using shadows and the power of suggestion to deliver a palpable fantasia of magic and light.
With Thomas Johnson’s lyrical compositions, which add sweetness and joy even as they help the show breathe, and with compelling performances by a stellar cast, this “Hobbit” is ingenious and absorbingly beautiful.
The narrative follows a ragtag band of warriors led by professional burglar Bilbo Baggins (Dean Holt), who has been hired by the dwarf king Thorin (Reed Sigmund). The dwarves seek to recover their gold from, and control of, Lonely Mountain, now lorded over by the dragon Smaug (H. Adam Harris).
Bilbo narrates this throttling adventure which also introduces us to the Elven Queen (Joy Dolo) and dwarf leader Balin (Becca Hart).
Inspiring films, video games and Marlon James’ bestselling fantasy novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” Tolkien’s original is a sprawling epic with shapeshifting characters, goblins and monsters. But what makes “Hobbit” sing as an adventure is that it is well told, both on the page and in the whiz-bangery of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Ring” blockbuster film trilogy.
Banks seems to understand this intuitively. And because of that, theatergoers don’t feel cheated here but, in fact, observers of a much larger world — larger than the five players who command the Children’s Theatre stage.
And Banks could not have asked for a more protean cast. Holt narrates the show with inviting openness. His charisma and honesty give his burglar both elegance and majesty. Bilbo is a trickster who turns out to have a heart of gold, and that sheen radiates in Holt’s performance.
Dolo shows tremendous range as commanding wizard Gandalf, scary monster Gollum and as the wise Elven Queen, among other roles. She delivers with immediacy and palpable power, scaring, impressing or thrilling us in turns.
Sigmund’s Thorin is a me-first figure, somebody who sees ideas of justice and fairness as suspect. And yet Sigmund movingly reveals the character’s sad journey of recognition.
In juggling multiple roles, Hart’s strongest turn is as the bow-woman Bard, a killer of monsters. But she has many small, strong moments supporting the narrative. Harris, too, portrays several characters with aplomb, including Smaug, depicted with Oz-like bluster and electrifying bombast.
As a playwright and director, Banks understands that this show is not just about escapism; it’s also about our world today. “Hobbit” doesn’t strain to make itself contemporary or to evoke the currents of global politics.
Still, in the end, it resonates on some questions of the day, including war and morality. In “Hobbit,” a professional burglar turns out to have a moral center. And Thorin, a ruler with a stunted moral compass, only learns to do what’s right as his pulse fades. The world is turned upside down and inside out in this “Hobbit.” It’s a compelling, thrilling ride.