TORONTO – Though theater critics were tepid in their reviews of the stage version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," the granddaughter of the legendary English author praised it for staying true to his classic tale.
In town Thursday night for the lavish world premiere at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Rachel Tolkien said she admired the opulent sets and Finnish music, and felt the 3 1/2-hour spectacle was a lovely retelling of her grandfather's Middle-earth saga.
"The set is incredible, the costumes are beautiful," said Tolkien, 35, adding that "The Hobbit" was first read to her when she was 6 years old. "Everything to me that is the most important, and the most moving in the book, they've gotten on the stage. I think it's an amazing feat to have made `The Lord of the Rings' in three-and-a-half hours."
Tolkien, who runs an art gallery in the south of France, said she wondered if her grandfather's story, adapted by Shaun McKenna and director Matthew Warchus, would borrow from the wildly successful film trilogy by Peter Jackson.
"I was just curious to see whether the film would influence the flavor of the stage set, and I don't think it did," she said. "I think it's quite different and original."
Some critics said it was too different and original for the audience to comprehend.
The New York Times called the production "a murky, labyrinthine wood from which no one emerges with head unmuddled, eyes unblurred or eardrums unrattled."
The Toronto Star dubbed it "bored of the Rings," and Associated Press theater critic Michael Kuchwara called the production "a case of imagination overwhelmed by complexity."
Billed as the most expensive musical ever at $25 million, Toronto is pinning its hopes on the show revitalizing the city's beleaguered theater industry, which has never fully recovered from the SARS outbreak in the spring of 2003. The city lost an estimated $1 billion in tourism dollars, after 44 people died of the respiratory syndrome.
"It's a Mirvish & Co. production -- you're going to get the best there is," former Toronto Mayor David Crombie said just before the curtains went up. "Before SARS, we were on an upward trajectory, and I think this is a terrific reminder that we're back."
David Mirvish is a Toronto-based theatrical producer who owns the Princess of Wales Theatre and has produced numerous shows in Canada and abroad.
"I feel relief that we've come to the end of the first phase of our journey," Mirvish said after the performance. "One never knows in theater -- it's a tough audience. But if tonight is repeated every night, we're in good shape."
The show did get a standing ovation, but not a wild encore callback to the actors.
"I thought the special effects were awesome, I loved the Finnish music and I thought it followed the Tolkien story," said Scott Ward of Kansas City, a lifelong "Lord of the Rings" fan of who has visited Tolkien's grave in Oxford, England.
The music was an amalgam of sounds by Bollywood master A.R. Rahman and Varttina, a Finnish folk group, combined by musical supervisor Christopher Nightingale.
Another true Hobbit-head -- and there weren't many at the invitation-only, black-tie affair -- said he appreciated the attempt, but that in the end, something was missing.
"The synergy didn't quite work," said Jonathan St. Rose, who joked that one of the only A-pluses he got at university was in Middle-earth studies. "I don't sense the angst, the soul, the kick that drives the heart of `The Lord of the Rings."'