Carver brings stage wizardry to LOTR musical

TORONTO-Picturing Vancouver theatre legend Brent Carver in J.R.R. Tolkien's mythic universe, the first image that comes to mind isn't the wizard Gandalf. But that's the role he's playing in the $27-million musical adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which premieres Thursday (March 23) at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre.

With a lithe dancer's frame, naturally fluid movements, and a mellifluous voice, Carver could definitely pass as one of Tolkien's elven elders. But as he settles into an interview in a meeting room at Mirvish Productions, he flashes a warm, cheery smile that makes him look more like a very tall hobbit.

The fact that it's safe to assume that anyone outside of comic-book stores and university campuses can tell a hobbit from the hole in the ground they live in is testament to the huge success of the recent screen adaptation of Tolkien's trilogy. The books have been a hit since their debut in the 1950s and have sold more than 100 million copies. But it was the success of Peter Jackson's movies that transformed Frodo from literary icon to pop-culture phenomenon on par with Superman, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter.

And although the new musical is adapted from the books, not the screenplays, it's the images from the movies that most viewers will carry with them into the theatre. "Certainly the movie has put it in the consciousness of many people, but at the same time the theatre's a totally different medium. It's the same story, but it's a different adaptation."

Last year, Carver was starring in the Vancouver Playhouse production of Copenhagen when his agent called about The Lord of the Rings. Carver does a comical surprised take as he talks about getting the news, and when asked if that's because he didn't think it would make a good musical, he laughs.

"Goodness knows I've been in musical adaptations where people go, 'Kiss of the Spider Woman's going to be a musical?'" he says. "Look at opera and the type of epic subjects they adapt to music. And when you read the books [The Lord of the Rings], you realize that all the way through the books the characters sing, they express themselves through ancient songs. The hobbits do; Gandalf sings with Pippin on the way to Minas Tirith," he adds.

Carver says that what threw him wasn't the subject matter, but the scope. Peter Jackson managed to get the stories down to nine-and-a-half hours that expand to more than 11 on DVD. Writer and lyricist Shaun McKenna and director-coadapter Matthew Warchus whittled the three books to three-and-a-half hours of stage time. And the scope is epic: a cast of 55, an 18-piece symphony orchestra, so many special effects that there are 17 different elevators, and one of the biggest budgets of any theatre production ever-if not the biggest.

Carver's journey from Cranbrook, B.C., to Middle Earth started in the early 1970s at UBC, where he soon found himself alongside other members of the fellowship of future Canadian theatre stars launching in Vancouver at that time, including Eric Peterson, Janet Wright, Ruth Nichol, Larry Lillo, Norman Browning, and John Gray. Although Carver didn't get a degree from UBC, he spent three years performing at the Frederic Wood Theatre and doing shows with MUSSOC, the university's musical-theatre group. "It was a really great, great, great time," he recalls. "People worked really hard and played hard."

Arts Club Theatre Company artistic director Bill Millerd directed Carver in a MUSSOC production of West Side Story and says it was obvious that he had the talent to become a star. "I think he's extraordinary and he was always extraordinary," Millerd told the Straight.

The next stop for the 20-year-old actor was his professional debut, performing three different shows with the Playhouse Holiday Theatre, the travelling youth wing of the Vancouver Playhouse. Halfway through the tour, the Arts Club found itself a performer short for the mega-hit that established the company in Vancouver's theatre scene: Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Carver landed a job as an understudy. "On my 21st birthday, I did performances of each of the three plays we did for Playhouse Holiday and two shows that night of Brel at the Arts Club. I did five shows on my 21st birthday. It was perfect."

From Brel, Carver went on to, well, pretty much everything an actor could do in Canada. In the early '80s, he starred in the CBC sitcom Leo and Me. He became a fixture on stages across the country, including the Stratford and Shaw festivals. And he's won Gemini Awards for his performances in Street Legal, Due South, and Elizabeth Rex.

Carver's also worked extensively south of the border, playing Ariel opposite Anthony Hopkins in a production of The Tempest, scoring an Emmy nomination for the title role in Whiskers, and winning a Tony Award for his performance as Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Millerd says one of the things that most impresses him about Carver today is that he's clearly chosen his own path. "After winning a Tony, he could have easily stayed in New York."

Still, rarely has Carver delved into a work whose books and movies have had such an enormous impact. "Who knew that I would be attempting to inhabit the world of Tolkien though the heart of Gandalf?" he asks. "But it's like Hamlet. I don't think you'll ever pluck all the mystery out of Gandalf. Or Tolkien. What's great about Tolkien is the more you know the story, the more you realize how intricate it is and how much more you can actually know about it. It's always going to be a beautiful mystery," Carver says as his eyes sparkle with the magic of a true wizard.