The New York Musical Theatre Festival
True parody is one of the most difficult things to achieve, not only because comedy is hard but because to do it right means to illuminate the work you’re skewering rather than just make fun of it. Believe it or not, the musical Fellowship!, ending its run today at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, comes much closer to the former than the latter.
That’s not to say that this show, which has a book by Joel McCrary (who also directed) and Kelly Holden-Bashar, music by Allen Simpson, and lyrics and additional material by its company of versatile comedians, doesn’t go for the easy laughs where it can get them. As an adaptation of the first of Peter Jackson’s recent movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic-fantasy classic, The Lord of the Rings, this means a lot of dewy-sultry glances between Frodo and Sam as they cart the dastardly Ring of Sauron to Mount Doom, the elf ranger Legolas being played by a lithe woman, and an Aragorn dripping with barely credible rock-star magnetism.
But more often than not, the creators do manage to unlock the work’s soul, if only by accident. Gandalf’s warning to Frodo about the danger and importance of his quest, “One Ring,” compresses a shocking amount of exposition into a single song. The fight against the Nazgul on Weathertop, and Arwen’s subsequent flight to Rivendell with an injured Frodo, boast surprisingly tense and potent theatricality. And legitimate dramatic moments involving the founding of the Fellowship, Boromir’s betrayal and subsequent (and fatal) penance, and the group’s insistence on soldiering on to The Two Towers even when things look their most impossible are rousing and sincere enough to survive actual attempts to musicalize Tolkien.
Okay, okay, the less said the better about Bilbo of the Borscht belt, Aragorn and Arwen’s 80s-hair duet, and a Balrog who moved into the Mines of Moria only to continue his Las Vegas gig — if only to avoid spoiling their deliciousness. Fellowship! only falters when it gets one-dimensionally silly, as with a tap number for Bilbo’s birthday, an uninspired drinking song at the Prancing Pony, and Gimli and Legolas’s joint discovery that dwarves and elves really can get along after all. A show dedicated enough to film a new version of the movie’s epic opening sequence (the slap fight that erupts when the humans’ rings are distributed is the silliest highlight), dissect the differences between Saruman and Sauron, link Elrond with the founder of Scientology, and even toss in a Tom Bombadil reference is, for better or worse, aiming somewhat above those kinds of surface-level laugh-getters.
The company is a gifted one, though, both at putting across the scripted jokes and developing new ones on the spot. (If the repeated, and priceless, instances of Gimli’s axe head bouncing into the audience and Boromir’s wig falling off were not just features of the performance I attended, I don’t want to know about it.) Particular standouts include Peter Allen Vogt as Sam and the Balrog and Edi Patterson as Arwen and Legolas, but everyone has a killer moment or two and work together impressively as a team.
So successful are they at capturing the fellowship of Fellowship! that accomplish what even Jackson himself struggled with: make you look forward to the next chapter. Certain running gags might lose steam if carried out for much longer — Pippin as the group’s wisecracker and Merry struggling to get anyone to acknowledge his existence would be chief among them — but the story is told completely, honestly, and funnily enough that another chapter or two of the saga would be welcome rather than wearisome. How often can you say that about a festival parody show?