Lord of the Rings

Based on the books by J.R.R. Tolkien. Directed by Matthew Warchus. A Mirvish Productions presentation. Now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto

Its creators say the $28-million stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy that premiered at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre on March 23 isn't a musical. But it's not exactly a play either.

It's a three-and-a-half-hour theatrical theme-park ride. And while the ride isn't always smooth, it's definitely an E ticket. Imagine a megamusical performed by Cirque du Soleil.

If you've never been exposed to the best-selling books or Peter Jackson's epic screen adaptation, then you probably didn't make it past the headline anyway. But the story is that four hobbits, little creatures with big hearts, have to leave home on a quest to destroy a ring of power that would allow the evil Sauron to rule their world, Middle Earth.

And if you think this synopsis leaves out a few details, imagine how many plot lines had to disappear to bring more than 1,000 pages of narrative to the stage.

This adaptation by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus (who also directed) often feels less like a story than a series of exquisite tableaux illustrating most of the key moments, while missing the heart that makes the novels and films as magical as a wizard's fireworks display. McKenna and Warchus adapted the books, not the screenplays, so Faramir and Wormtongue are gone, but the play includes one of Jackson's most controversial cuts, the Scouring of the Shire.

However, those tableaux really are exquisite. The effects in LOTR are less Broadway than Vegas, where stages are constructed to serve specific shows.

The Balrog breathes fire; the Dark Riders and the spider Shelob are genuinely scary; the stilt-walking Ents are tall as trees. Enough characters fly that the credits should list an air-traffic controller, and Michael (Tommy Douglas) Therriault is so loose-limbed as Gollum it would be easy to believe he's actually a CGI illusion.

But while the effects are unforgettable, most of the songs by A.R. Rahman and Finnish folk group Víƒ ¤rttiníƒ ¤ vanish like they're wearing a magic ring. And Galadriel's power ballad was weak.

The performances range from solid to stellar, but they're almost all eclipsed by the revolving stage and its 17 elevators. Then again, it's the experience that's the true star, and Rings just raised the bar for theatrical megashows everywhere-at least until someone choreographs a quidditch match or writes a ballad for Darth Vader.

The Lord of the Rings is playing until Mordor freezes over. (A second production is scheduled for London in 2007.) Some tickets are set aside for tourists and can be ordered through Tourism Toronto (www.torontotourism.com/ or 1-800-499-2514).