Review: Fire-breathing dragons steal the show at 'How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular'


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"This is AMAZING!" the boy hero Hiccup exclaims as he rides on the back of his unlikely new friend, a supposedly deadly dragon he's dubbed Toothless and given a prosthetic tail wing, as they fly through fjords and swoop over the sea.

And it IS amazing, in that this dizzying scene is depicted with a live actor, an animatronic beast, animated footage unfurling on a massive backdrop and over the floor, and more.

This magical, mythical Viking world gets re-created in real 3-D at Consol Energy Center, Uptown, during the "How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular," which continues through Sunday.

'How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular'

Where: Consol Energy Center, Uptown.

When: 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. today; 1 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $37.20-$144.45; consolenergycenter.com/events or 412-642-1800.

Almost everyone who goes will be familiar with the story, if not from the original book, then from the well-loved 2010 movie, DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon," which earned Oscar nominations for best animated feature and best original score.

My 5-year-old son, who like many of the smaller members of Thursday's audience has watched the movie multiple times, summed it up: There's a really bad dragon, a bunch of good dragons, and the good dragons go to get the bad dragon with the "pirates" (Vikings). That's not a bad blurb for the adventurous plot, but it misses the subtleties of human relationships -- boy/father, boy/girl, teacher/student, human/dragon, us/them -- that endear the movie to more mature viewers, too.

For this touring arena-show version, DreamWorks teamed up with Global Creatures, famous for the prehistoric giants that starred in "Walking With Dinosaurs."

The dragons, nearly two dozen of them, are the stars. Each of the big ones -- one has a 46-foot wingspan -- is controlled by several operators, including drivers who move them around the arena floor or on wires across the arena sky.

The robots look real enough to scare some young audience members -- a little girl behind us broke into tears -- and keep others, including my son and me, wide-eyed and holding onto each other.

From their lifelike eyes, which blink and glow, to their toothsome, roaring mouths, which spew flames and fumes and even perfect smoke rings, the dragons are wonders -- colorful, beautiful works of art.

As we watched Vikings scrambling to avoid the big blue Nadder's spiky tail, my son whispered to his mom, "Are they real?"

Much of the fire is real -- so much so that you can feel the heat if you're sitting in a low enough row. So much so that the show is prefaced with assuring words from fire-helmeted Pittsburgh fire inspector Don Henson proclaiming the arena "safe for fire-breathing dragons."

While the fire is exciting, it's the way that water is re-created that lifts a pivotal scene where Hiccup's Viking chief father, Stoick, dives into the deep to save his teenage son and his pet (and perhaps himself). The two actors "swim" on cables through the air, which is transformed into water by effects including floating bubbles, lights and lasers, video and sound.

All this layering of techniques is what makes the show so unusual and so creative. But at times the film and effects aspects overwhelm the theatrical ones. The staging cleverly places an actor high in the seats at one point, but most of the time, the space is too big for most of the audience to really see what the actors look like. Some characters, such as Astrid, the feisty girl dragon-fighter and Hiccups' like interest, barely come to life. Some of 21 actors, which include an impressive lot of dancers and acrobats, connect best with the audience when the lights come up and they perform and wave at the edges of the "stage."

I was glad to be sitting in the 100 level; the 200 level would be above all the action -- too high.

You expect to be impressed by the high tech, but some of the most charming scenes are low tech, as when a dragon primer is presented by actual old-school shadow puppets, or the Viking fleet, sailing toward the big bad dragon, is depicted as hand-carried paper lanterns.

While some of the dialogue and live-action timing was a bit off, and the pacing a bit slow in spots, especially the first half, I liked that you could see the actors unhook their cables, and see the dragons shadows on the video screen, or see the legs of the people propelling some of the smaller dragon puppets. Despite all the special effects, the show invites participation of the imagination.

Thursday's opening was delayed by a "technical issue" when one of the dragon puppets was stranded in mid-air. A hydraulic lift crawled out, orange safety light flashing, raised a worker on its long neck, then down, and the show went on after a 15-minute delay. That was forgivable, but unfortunate, in that it soon was followed by a 20-minute intermission.

Otherwise, the show would have lasted closer to 2 hours instead of 21/2, which given the lateness, was about as long as it should be for the young audience (many of whom didn't mind the extra time to talk, go to the bathrooms, and buy souvenirs and snacks).

While the "How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular" aims to tell the full story that the movie does, this vast production doesn't always clearly get across key plot points, such as how the cat-like Toothless saves his buddy's life while setting him up for a prosthetic of his own.

In the end, I wasn't sure if my dissatisfaction with that was only because I know the movie, and because I'm an adult. Especially taken on its own, this is a fun and truly spectacular show, and its positive messages do still come through. As Hiccup tells Astrid while coaxing her onto Toothless for the ride, "You'll never forget it."

My 5-year-old was enthralled. As he summed it up the next morning, "I loved it!" Bad dragon, good dragons, pirates and all.

theaterreviews

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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