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There's something funny going on in Middle-earth

A madcap musical take on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy has become hobbit-forming for theatergoers

By Hugh Hart
Special to The Times

January 7, 2005
For all its merits, the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy never displayed a particularly deft sense of humor. Now, to correct that shortcoming, a peppy troupe of improv-based performers has conjured up "Fellowship!," a musical parody that crams the entire population of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth onto the tiny stage of a North Hollywood black-box theater.

What's more, having played to packed houses since its premiere in December, "Fellowship!" has become destination viewing for Tolkien-obsessed "Ringers." At a recent performance, attendees included Dungeons and Dragons website developer Tahsin Shamma; Joe Taylor, who's read the trilogy eight times; and Yasser Bakr, a computer programmer who's seen each "Lord of the Rings" movie 10 to 12 times.

"If you can't laugh at something you love," Bakr says, "then you're not truly a fan."

Like the movie "The Ring Thing," a Swiss parody of the Tolkien trilogy that broke box-office records last month in Switzerland, "Fellowship!" came along just in time to feed the hobbit habit for movie fans who've grown accustomed over the previous three years to a new "Lord of the Rings" installment annually.

In fact, it was shortly after seeing "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" a year ago that actors Kelly Holden and Joel McCrary hatched the notion of a lampoon.

"We were at the dog park talking, and we got onto the topic of movies that probably should never be made into musicals," says McCrary, enjoying a post-show pizza with his colleagues at a Lankershim Boulevard cafe. " 'The Matrix' was one, and then we thought of 'Lord of the Rings,' which just made us laugh out loud.'

A Mississippi-bred actor, McCrary did improvisational street theater at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., before relocating 10 years ago to Los Angeles with his improv troupe, Houseful of Honkeys. Holden, a Virginia native who often guest-starred in Honkeys shows after following McCrary west from Florida, says, "I'm a huge fan of the movies, but there are parts that are so super-over-the-top serious. Here's this sweet story with lovable characters who really care about each other, but then our idea was, 'Let's have them get a little wackadoodle.' "

Early last year, McCrary and Holden hammered out a "Fellowship!" rough draft based on the 2001 movie "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," tailoring the roles for improv partners they'd worked with around town.

"There were certain friends whose voices we were hearing as we wrote," McCrary says. "We decided not to worry about gender and just go with people's essences. For example, there's something about Lisa Fredrickson that fits the attitude — grrrrhhh — of Gimli the Dwarf."

Frodo hewed true to form with Elijah Wood look-alike Cory Rouse, but other characters took on entirely new and twisted aspects. Peter Allen Vogt, as Frodo's adoring friend Sam, plumps up the relationship's homoerotic undertones bandied about on "Lord of the Rings" discussion boards. Matthew Stephen Young plays Viggo Mortensen's heroic Strider as a guitar-slinging surfer dude, while Steve Purnick gives elder hobbit statesman Bilbo the mien of a retired Borscht Belt comic.

In April, McCrary and Holden assembled their dream cast for a staged reading, sans songs. Laughs ensued. Allen Simpson was recruited to come up with music.

"The script was hysterical," he says. "But beyond that, part of the charm was this idea of mounting such a complex story in this kids-doing-a-show-in-their-barn atmosphere." Whereas the "Fellowship" movie cost about $90 million, McCrary, the show's producer and director, looks to have spent only a few hundred dollars on costumes and props.

Broomsticks stand in for mighty steeds; a ring suspended from a fishing-pole wire replicates a classic slow-motion sequence; pencil-size stick puppets recap battle sequences that cost "Rings" director Peter Jackson several million dollars. Simpson says, "It's almost like the traveling troupe from 'Hamlet,' who have all the props in their wagon and just go from town to town doing the show. You could easily pack our set into the back of a pickup truck."

Simpson, who spent two years as musical foil to TV song-and-dance man Wayne Brady, says most of the "Fellowship!" songs were spawned spontaneously, as actors made up lyrics on the spot while he played piano. "When we wrote our duet 'I Always Thought,' the actresses were in the room improvising lyrics while Joel and Kelly gave them directions. We just let the tape roll, collected the funniest parts of it and put it all together."

For the overwrought "One Moment With You" ballad, pairing Strider with his elf girlfriend, Arwen (Edi Patterson), McCrary decided Matt Young should play a screaming guitar solo in the middle of the song. Says McCrary, "Matt's in this band Captain Genius, so when we came up with the idea of the '80s power ballad, we figured Matt, as Strider, will be singing. Therefore: guitar solo." Adds Simpson, "Then we realized we can do a verse in Elvish." McCrary: "So it's verse, chorus, Elvish, guitar solo, chorus. We got a song!"

"I remember Edi came to me when we started rehearsals and said, 'Do you want me to learn Elvish?' I said, 'Edi you're an improviser. Don't worry about it. Nobody will ever know.' " Simpson: "One of my favorite moments in the show each night is getting to hear what gibberish they're going to come up with for the Elvish part of the song."

Unlike McCrary and Holden, Simpson, a native South Carolinian, is a longtime Tolkien cultist who can — and will — discourse at length about the author's arcane linguistic theories.

"He's the geek," says Holden. Says McCrary, "It's not healthy. Now I'm a Ringer too. I know way too much."

With Simpson on hand to fact-check any inside jokes, the "Fellowship!" brain trust made sure the high-octane buffoonery remained rooted in Tolkien's earnest story. Once rehearsals began last fall, cast and crew found themselves overtaken by the trilogy's homespun all-for-one ethos.

"This whole show is by committee," says Simpson. "I didn't write all the music. Joel and Kelly didn't write all the script. Everybody was helping everybody. I felt like a little kid in the candy store who couldn't reach the good stuff, but with my buddy I can climb on his back and together we're able to get to heights that I seriously thought were unimaginable."

McCrary has had enough. "You're not going make me cry again," he quips. "You're not going to make me cry."

Simpson plows ahead.
br> "I know this sounds like bunk, but we all forged such a bond as a result of working on this show, and I think it comes back to the themes that Tolkien created in the first place, about working together to accomplish something greater than you could do by yourself."

McCrary, who in lieu of salaries has rewarded the "Fellowship!" cast with percentage points of hoped-for future royalties, motions toward his merry band of actors, who've shed their clown-size hobbit feet to gather at the next table, as they do nearly every night after a performance.

"Everybody involved in the show really does seem to enjoy being a part of it. At least that's what they tell me. I don't know," McCrary says, laughing. "They may just be trying to get a few more points."

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Joel Tauber

What: br> 'Fellowship!'

Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays

Ends: Jan. 22

Price: $15

Contact: (323) 960-7774 or www.plays411.com/fellowship