It's always odd to go back to a place you visited as a child. Often, the space seems smaller than you remember, and the experience is diminished and disappointing.
Occasionally, however, the opposite is true.
When I was a little kid, I went to the Gaslight Theatre, because, ostensibly, its shows are primarily for children. Gaslight takes the plots of well-worn melodramas and turns them into musical revues, complete with singing, dancing, asides to the audience and deliberately groan-inducing yet family-friendly jokes and puns.
In the case of its most-recent production, The Wizard of the Rings, writer-director Peter Van Slyke has taken the basic plot of The Lord of the Rings and added in songs set to classic musical numbers like "Oh Ho Ho It's Magic," "You Don't Own Me," "Ring of Fire" and so on.
As a child, I remember being embarrassed when the actors made the audience participate—making us "boo" the villains and shout out responses. Child-me didn't appreciate it when theatrical productions broke the fourth wall, I suppose.
I expected my reaction as an adult to be similar—embarrassment at a small production's earnest attempts to make me laugh. But it turned out that the Gaslight's show was way more fun for me as an adult that it ever was when I was an uptight child.
I was surprised to see that the theater itself is pretty large; it's in a high-ceilinged room with two levels. My clearest childhood memory of the Gaslight is of a very tiny stage—and it is small, with a narrow side space for the live three-piece band. Even so, the whole place loomed far larger in reality than it did in my imagination.
The Gaslight Theatre is altogether a larger and more-impressive operation than I realized. There's the option to order from a full menu—and I'd forgotten that going as an adult meant I could order whatever I pleased, including alcohol. Adulthood: 1; Childhood: 0.
The Wizard of the Rings reduces the complex and unwieldy plot of the Rings trilogy down to its melodramatic basics. There's a bunch of evil folks: the Wizard Zazaran (David Orley), the Witch Queen Gorgonella (Katherine Byrnes), Regent Slithergroan (Sean MacArthur) and the Drooke Riders (Sarah Vanek-Stellmon and Charlie Hall).
Their motivation is not exactly complex: They want the One Ring to Rule Them All. Also, they sing and dance. You are encouraged to shout "Boo!" when Zazaran says, "I will be the Wizard of the Rings!"
Fortunately for the powers of good, the Wizard Bandolar (Jake Chapman when I saw the show; some roles are shared by different actors) teams up with the Princess Engleberre (Tarreyn Van Slyke) to destroy the One Ring. This ring was in the possession of the Widget Baskin Robbins (Joe Cooper), but he gives it to his nephew, Froyo Robbins (Mike Yarema).
The show is described as a spoof, but that implies that it mocks specific elements of the original. Well, The Wizard of the Rings isn't a biting satire of The Lord of the Rings movies; it's simply an excuse to have a lot of fun while making references to pop culture. Harry Potter sneaks in briefly ("Wrong wizard!" the cast shouts), as do elements from Cinderella, The Wizard of Oz and The Smurfs.
It's impressive how well musical director Linda Ackermann mimics The Lord of the Rings' theme music. Similarly, the sets and costumes evoke images from the movies quite accurately. The show is really more homage than spoof; Peter Van Slyke—or someone on his technical staff—obviously loves the movies.
My childhood preoccupation with The Lord of the Rings did not survive into adulthood. I inhaled the books as a young one, but as an adult, I just couldn't get into the movies. I dutifully sat through all three of them (I have friends who own the director's-cut DVDs and quote the movie lines in daily life), but the earnest, slow-moving films never gripped me. I enjoyed myself more at the zany, tongue-in-cheek Gaslight version.
The cast sings and dances very capably, but no one takes themselves too seriously. When I was little, I always felt excruciatingly embarrassed for the actors; now I can appreciate the professionalism and good humor behind it all. Despite having obviously rehearsed the jokes countless times, the cast members act genuinely amused by their own shenanigans. They often grin at each other or at the audience when other actors do a particularly amusing bit, as if they're being entertained by it for the very first time.
At the end of the show, patrons celebrating birthdays get free ice cream, and everyone sings "Happy Birthday." I hated this kind of public attention as a child. Nowadays, it looks like a blast.
I noticed the older folks seemed to be having the best time. Maybe it takes getting older to truly appreciate the value of dwelling in silliness for an hour or two.
Plus, the adults get to order beer.