Fellowship! is back in town, and it’s not just Lord Of The Rings fans who have reason to celebrate.

Fellowship! (short for Fellowship! A Musical Parody of “The Fellowship of the Ring”) is exactly that, a full-fledged musical (with original songs) based on the first volume of the epic novel The Lord Of The Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, or as “Galadriel Explains It All” in a hilariously campy video prologue, “History became legend, legend became myth, myth became a book, the book became a movie, and tonight, the movie becomes a MUSICAL!” 

With book by Kelly Holden-Bashar and Joel McCrary, music by Allen Simpson, and “Lyrics By Everyone,” Fellowship! won the 2005 LA Weekly Award for Best Musical, and for those like myself who missed its first incarnation, this return to L.A. is happy news indeed.

Like the novel, Fellowship! begins with the celebration of Bilbo’s 111st (that’s eleventy-first) birthday, but this Bilbo (Steve Purnick) is a Borscht Belt comic complete with cigar and corny one-liners.  (“It’s great to be here, but then again it’s great to be anywhere at my age.”) Bilbo’s celebration is interrupted by the arrival of his buddy the wizard, aka Gandalf The Great (understudy Chris Tallman), who proclaims, “I give to you my friends the gift of dance,” leading to a snazzy soft-shoe number (choreographed with Broadway pizzazz by Michele Spears) and climaxed with full-cast chorus line kicks. Yes, this is a Lord Of The Rings unlike any you’ve seen before.

My own experience with LOTR (book or film) is limited to having watched part one of the movie trilogy on DVD about seven years ago, so watching Fellowship!, I never quite did get why Bilbo’s heir, boyishly cute, rosy cheeked Frodo (Cory Rouse) and his chubby mincing gardener pal Sam (Peter Allen Vogt) set off to “remove the ring from the Shire,” but who cares? Off they go, accompanied by carrot-topped Pippin (Holden-Bashar) and dreadlocked Merry (Ryan Smith), who pulls out a pot-filled baggie and wonders musically, “Is this enough weed?”  

As an animated video projection map charts their course, our merry band of Hobbits make their first stop at the Inn Of The Prancing Pony (“Don’t eat meat cause it ain’t pork, here at the Prancing Pony”).  And speaking of prancing, the H.S.Q. (Homoerotic Subtext Quotient) of Sam’s open adoration of Frodo is a good deal more text than subtext here, with oh-so-gay Sam clearly having the hots for his twinkie master. (When the dark menacing figure of Strider [Matthew Stephen Young] is spotted among the customers at the Inn, a jealous Sam tells Frodo, “That man is the corner has been staring at you.  I don’t like other people staring at you.)

Strider warns his companions, “We can no longer wait for Gandalf.  They are coming,” and when Pippin wonders who “they” are, it’s a cue for Strider to sing about “The Nazgul.”  Comments Sam, “Well, that’s a great song, Mr. Strider, but they seem to be getting a lot closer.” “Right,” responds Strider. “I’ll sing on the way.”  And three days later the deliberately and hilariously repetitive song (and this leg of the journey) have ended, just in time for Pippin and friends to explain to Strider “It’s A Hobbit Thing.”  (Another great song and dance number.)

Danger lurks behind every curve, prompting Frodo to ask Sam, “Will you watch me while I sleep?” to which an adoring Sam responds “I always do.” Unfortunately, Sam’s watch is not enough to prevent the Black Riders (a bunch of Ninja-like swordsmen) from attacking. Our merry band needs a miracle, and who should arrive on (hobby-)horseback but Arwen (Edi Patterson) to save the day?

About this point, I stopped trying to follow the story (LOTR fans won’t need to) and just enjoyed the madness and merriment.  There’s a puppet flashback which tells Gandalf’s story, including a “Wiz-Off” between two mortal enemies. Arwen and Strider join voices accompanied by Strider on the electric guitar in the 80s power ballad “One Moment With You.” (“We don’t need tomorrow, cause we got today, and what’s today but yesterday’s tomorrow?”).  Elf Prince Legolas (Patterson again, blonde this time) arrives looking like Robin Hood and explaining, “Sorry I’m late. I was running on water and I slipped on a fish.” (That one went over my head, but I laughed anyway.)  The gang then try to decide on a name for themselves (The Doom Troop?), finally setting on The Fellowship, a name they celebrate by singing a medley of the show’s greatest hits—up till now. 

Along the way, Tallman returns as Galandriel, a more macho version of the movie’s Cate Blanchett, and Vogt reappears as The Balrog, looking like a cross between Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent (he’s got the horns), Sophie Tucker (he’s got the shape), and Las Vegas Cher (he’s dressed head-to-toe in red sequins), and singing “The Balrog Blues.”  Smith reappears as a character called El Rond (leading to some El Rond Hubbard jokes). Gimli The Dwarf (Lisa Fredrickson) and Legolas The Elf celebrate their interracial love with “I Always Thought.”  (Legolas sings, “I always thought that the dwarfs were just stupid, no sense of beauty, just hair and dirt and farts.  But we’re both here risking our lives. That can’t be all for naught. [Sha la la la la la] I guess we’re not as different as we thought.”)  And in the tradition of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” Frodo and someone named Boromir (Purnick again) try to see who can sing longer and higher notes.  (It’s Frodo all the way.) 

Fellowship! ends with the entire cast lifting up their hearts to sing “Song Of Destiny,” but actually, as Frodo explains to Sam, “It’s the end of the beginning.” Sam: So, are we beginning the end?  Frodo: Hey, you might think so, but we’re actually beginning the middle. Sam: The middle? Frodo: Yes, it’s the part after the middle, but before the end.

Does this mean there’ll be Fellowship! The Sequel? One can only hope!

The cast is so all-around splendid that it’s no wonder they won the 2005 LA Weekly Award for Best Comedy Ensemble. McCrary’s direction, Spears’ choreography, and Simpson and Rouse’s musical direction (with Simpson on keyboards joined by substitute drummer Ken Beck) couldn’t be better. Songs by Simpson and “Everyone” pastiche a wide variety of genres, Broadway and otherwise. 

Set designer Matt Gorley keeps things simple (though not for the two stagehand whizzes who swiftly and adroitly rearrange boxes between each of the show’s nineteen scenes). Mike Jespersen’s lighting is just right.  Best of all are Sandra Burns’ costumes, takeoffs on the characters’ big screen garb. There are the Hobbits’ tunics, capes, and Capri pants (with extra large prosthetic bare feet), Gandalf’s floor-long robe and beard, Gimli’s pintsized suit of armor, Legolas’ Sherwood Forest-ready green gear, and Strider’s black coat and boots. The program also credits Laura Moneymaker (original costume and makeup design), Annie Smith (original lighting design) and Shannon Monroe (original prop design).

From Thursday’s sellout crowd’s enthusiastic response to every song, joke, and reference, I’d guess that most of them were diehard Lord Of The Ring fans, and doubtless the more you know, the more you’ll “get” the in-jokes. But even non-LOTR aficionados like myself can have an equally fine time with Frodo and his friends. In fact, I had a Frodo-lightful, Galandriel-icious time!

Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
June 11, 2009
                                                                         Photos: Mark Baer

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