John, Paul, George, and… Frodo?
Imagine the Beatles as denizens of Middle Earth waging a war featuring Hobbits and wizards, with Yoko Ono as a crouching, hissing Gollum. If that’s a bit of a stretch for the imagination, this weekend you can actually witness this improbable scenario played out for all it’s worth by five talented theater arts students from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).
The Island Theatre Workshop (ITW) production of the zany “The Beatles Present the Lord of the Rings” opened last Friday night and will play through this weekend at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury.
The show is a clever, goofball romp — a la Monty Python. It’s a manic one-hour retelling of the classic fantasy adventure by the psychedelic era Fab Four. And, while it helps if you’re familiar with the Tolkien books or the Hollywood movie versions of the three-part epic, the musical production can be enjoyed by all.
It’s an entertaining hour of theater — full of fractured Beatles songs, non-stop gags, physical comedy, and crazy costumes and props, skillfully performed by five talented comedic actors.
The show starts out in a living room dominated by a huge hookah where John, Paul, George, and Ringo are desperately trying to come up with a new concept to propel them out of a lull in their career. After tossing around some equally preposterous themes — Lilliputians, astronauts, and Native Americans mixing it up — they decide to pursue a proposed movie project that had previously been shelved when Stanley Kubrick very wisely opted out. The Beatles rally and decide to do a DIY version of their “The Lord of the Rings” movie.
One might think that a similar stoner brainstorming session was what gave rise to this oddball production by the CMU students. It could equally have come from combining two audience suggestions at an improv performance. However, cowriters Kyle Wilson and Sam French actually based their show on a true-life incident which has been all but lost to history.
The Beatles really did, at one point, have plans to make a “Lord of the Rings” movie with Stanley Kubrick. And, considering the crazy antics of the Fab Four in films like “Help” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” had that project actually come to light, the results may not have been far from that imagined by the CMU troupe.
The idea itself is ripe with comic possibility and Mr. Wilson and Mr. French have managed to incorporate spoofs of hippie culture, The Beatles’ legend, action films, amateur theatrical productions, and even mainstream musicals into one very clever, fast-paced production. The co-writers draw on a hodge-podge of comic devices — slapstick, physical comedy, clowning and crazy costumes (the wizard Gandalf wears a Santa hat and red robe, another villain is portrayed by one actor balanced on the shoulders of another wrapped in a brown sheet and wearing a lampshade with attached moose antlers).
The props are equally inventive and silly – there’s swordplay between two characters wielding a feather duster and a cane, and another actor argues with two hand puppets representing additional characters.
“The Lord of the Rings” story is followed pretty faithfully and some of the dialogue is even lifted from the film version. And, the show is a play within a play with The Beatles’ imminent breakup providing a second plot line. The band members bicker throughout and Yoko Ono’s presence looms over the proceedings, even before she actually shows up in person.
If there’s fault to be found in the show, it’s that the scenes move along so quickly and the gags are so rapid fire that some of the great dead pan humor gets lost in the mash up. John Lennon is — sort of — the straight guy in the show and his sappy sincerity is played up effectively for laughs. But some of his best lines, like “Who knew that tea and scones could be laced with such deceit?” are delivered without a following beat to give time to appreciate the absurdity of the juxtaposition.
The production is laced with Beatles’ songs reinvented to suit the action — “All the Lonely Hobbits,” “Here Comes Sauron,” “The Long and Winding Road that Leads to Mordor.” So what if the singing is, at times, off key, the choreography is fabulous and the familiar tunes are delivered in a manner worth of a Broadway show tune. Surprisingly, the crazy comedy plays really well as musical theater. The finale where Paul reappears (after leaving the band) guitar in hand and leads a rousing version of “Oh, Darling” is a true show-stopper. The crowd on opening night thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the one-hour fast motion epic.
Mr. Wilson notes that he and his co-writer are big fans of “South Park” and Monty Python and that they also derived inspiration from watching The Beatles’ five films. Although both authors re-read the Tolkien books for this project, Mr. Wilson says, “We focused more on the movies. I think they’re more accessible to people.”
Both entering their junior year as directing majors, the two writers created the show as part of a school project. They recruited five of their acting major friends to take on the roles and another musical theater major to play piano. The group performed the piece for the first time as part of an annual CMU festival of independent student work.
ITW artistic director Kaf Warman, who teaches at CMU, tapped the group for a run of the show here. Previously she brought PigPen Theater, another group of CMU students, to the Vineyard. The PigPen members have since gone on to a successful career in New York City and elsewhere after winning top awards at the New York Fringe Festival two years in a row.
Kids would probably love this show but, parents be warned, there’s a bit of sex (some crude sight gags) and drugs (mostly pot smoking but also some references to other drugs) — as well as rock and roll — in this production.
ITW’s “The Beatles Present The Lord of the Rings,” 8 pm, Aug. 9, 10, 11, Grange Hall, West Tisbury. $15. Ages 10+. For more information, visit itwmv.org or call 508-737-8550.