Middle-earth comes to Playhouse Merced this weekend with the opening of "The Hobbit."
Adapted by Patricia Gray from the original book by British author J.R.R. Tolkien, the play tells the story of the mythical creature Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who leaves the comforts of his hobbit-hole and embarks on an adventure to win a portion of Dwarvish treasure guarded by the dragon Smaug.
"I first read 'The Hobbit' my sophomore year of high school," Director Michelle Kittel said. "I was already an avid fan of the fantasy genre, but Tolkien's work was something else besides that. It was such a wonderful and complete world, the characters so interesting and intriguing, that I fell into a lifelong love affair of all things Tolkien."
This love compelled her to haunt the door of the artistic director's office until all concerned agreed to produce the show for the 2012-13 season.
"I've always wanted to play a hobbit ever since I saw the first 'Lord of the Rings,' and when the opportunity arrived I took it," said Jacob Nelson, who plays Bilbo Baggins. "It has been a wonderful experience. We have an outstanding cast and a stage that makes you feel like you're actually in the world of Middle-earth."
The play was authorized by Tolkien and features many beloved characters from the book, including the wizard Gandalf, the creature Gollum, and an array of dwarves, elves, goblins and trolls.
Zach Ellis plays Gandalf and Jeshamon Volkerts plays Gollum, and they are joined by a featured cast of more than 30.
"The Hobbit" is a unique show for Playhouse Merced in that it utilizes all 360 degrees of the theatre to make the story as vivid as possible.
"There is no crawl space or staircase that we do not utilize," Kittel said. "Additionally, over half of our cast are completely new to the Playhouse stage, or any stage. I have at least five people who have never acted before but decided to audition. I had almost 70 people audition for 'The Hobbit,' and I have never seen such a turnout in my three years here."
Kittel is delighted by the interest the story has generated in her cast.
"Every single person in this cast has read 'The Hobbit' at least once, if not five or six times," she said. "And everyone in this cast is as in love with 'The Hobbit' as I am. I think that is something you can really see when you watch the show.
"My absolute favorite part of this whole process, though, has been the time before and after rehearsal when my cast, crew and I will fall into conversations and arguments about the difference between a goblin and an orc and the stylistic differences between 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings.' "
Nelson's favorite parts are the scenes featuring the dragon Smaug and the creature Gollum.
"It is amazing how much it will give you goose bumps," he said. "The actors for both scenes are truly gifted at what they do."
"This story is going to be fun for the whole family," Kittel said. "The play is funny, heartwarming, action packed and, at very specific times, terrifying. It's a complete spectrum of emotion wrapped up into a glittering stage spectacular that everyone can enjoy."
WHEN: Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Feb. 17
WHERE: Playhouse Merced, 452 W. Main St.
TICKETS: $20 adults, $19 seniors, $10 students, $8 children
CALL: (209) 752-8587