IT'S BEEN MORE than four years in the making, is said to be the most expensive theatrical presentation ever and its producer likens the process to climbing Everest. From the mixed reaction of the critics, there's a way to climb yet. But then staging a musical version of The Lord of the Rings was never going to be easy. Producer Kevin Wallace started work on the US$25 million show in November 2001, before the first of Peter Jackson's trilogy hit the big screen. The 48-year-old and his team - writer/director Matthew Warchus, co-writer Shaun McKenna, and set and costume designer Rob Howell - spent 18 months in discussions and negotiations before the deal to produce the show was signed. At its core, the J.R.R. Tolkien epic is a tale of good versus evil. But its scope is enormous, and Wallace wondered at first whether it could be successfully brought to the stage. But as he read on, he became more convinced that it could. Wallace was in-house producer for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group (Whistle Down the Wind and The Beautiful Game) for almost seven years, which involved working on the likes of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. He credits Webber's influence in guiding him in his new venture. 'I think that in terms of production values, he was a huge influence. [His shows] all had very high quality production values.' The biggest hurdle was to balance the grandeur of the production with the more intimate stories of its characters. The Lord of the Rings tells of the adventure of Frodo, a hobbit who must destroy the Ring before it destroys all that is good in the world. The Rings' spectacle is both 'its vulnerability and greatest strength', says Wallace. He had to ensure that 'the humanity of the story, in relation to the story of the hobbits, was something that resonates'. He points to the end of Act II as an example of that resonance, when Frodo and fellow hobbit Sam quietly sing Now and for Always, commemorating their friendship, as they set out on their mission to destroy the Ring. 'It's an emotionally engaging sequence, which the story needs to break through [the spectacle].' The 31/2-hour production, including two intermissions, offers plenty of pyrotechnics and special effects. There's the giant spider Shelob spinning her web around a helpless Frodo, roaring fires whose black ashes (confetti) spin through the audience, and all manner of frenzied battle sequences, with elves, dwarves and humans fighting vicious, black-clad orcs. Strobe lights, loud music, rear projection, raised stages are all used to bring the otherworldly Middle Earth to life. Wallace says Rings has pushed the boundaries. 'It has exceeded people's expectations of the visual impact of what theatre can do,' he says. The stage production is based on Tolkien's books, not Jackson's films, and Wallace says it's 'a great achievement and entirely successful'. Not everyone agrees. The musical opened in Toronto late last month to mixed reviews. Critics panned the show for everything from forgettable songs to lacklustre performances and emotional emptiness. Wallace says he's frustrated but not worried by the reaction - and says British critics have reacted favourably. 'The critics are split, which is fascinating ... and frustrating,' he says. 'What's interesting is that the critics who come out of the British theatrical tradition are generally receptive to the piece.' The naysayers among the North American critics are 'aggressive about the fact that they dislike it. Why? Who knows?' Wallace says market research has been favourable, although he'll continue making changes, ahead of the show's planned opening in London later in the year. Some of those changes could be radical, with plans for a major analysis at the end of this month. Among possible alterations is an expansion of the role of Saruman, the evil wizard who sets in motion the whole story of the quest to destroy the Ring. At the moment, he appears briefly in only one scene. 'People have been encouraging us to look at it again, saying he should have a greater presence,' says Wallace. Another possible change, in response to complaints that the show is too long, is to eliminate one of the intermissions, which will change the pace and flow. Wallace estimates that by the time the show opens in London, as much as a quarter of the show 'will have physically changed on stage'. 'We're never finished, we only open,' he says. 'For something of this scale, it's still cooking, still settling, the actors are still feeling their material. It's still defining itself.'