As the lights went down in the First Niagara Center for Thursday night's opening of the "How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular," a few hundred battery-powered Viking helmets sent red and blue flashes throughout the dim arena.
Huge flames shot up from either side of a large ring on the arena floor while a pair of dragons suspended from a track high above flapped their wings and blew huge puffs of smoke from their flared nostrils and balls of fire from their roaring mouths. A 20,000-square-foot projection playing across a massive wall and spilling onto the floor helped to introduce the crowd to Hiccup, the teenage protagonist of Dreamworks' beloved 2010 film on which the production is based.
And all those hundreds of pint-sized Vikings in the audience, their souvenir hats still blinking away as a sign of Dreamworks' marketing savvy, were entranced.
This hyped-to-high-heaven production, which recently began its United States tour, promised total, unbridled spectacle. And spectacle is exactly what it delivered.
For those whose parental status - or lingering affection for animated kids' films, as the case may be - has not accorded them an intimate familiarity with the story, this production doesn't make it difficult to pick up. It takes place in the isolated Isle of Berk, plagued for centuries by dragons as some places are plagued by termites. Hiccup, the diminutive son of Berk's burly leader, tries to prove his mettle by shooting down a much-feared dragon. Bravely bucking Viking logic and tradition, Hiccup befriends the fallen dragon, renames him Toothless and embarks on a quixotic mission to unite Viking and dragon alike.
The real stars of the show - no knock against Rarmian Newton, the Australian actor and former "Billy Elliot" star who did an excellent job as young Hiccup - are the fire-breathing animatronic marvels themselves. These mobile dragons, meticulously sheathed in multicolored reptilian scales and craggy horns, are convincing enough to strike fear into the hearts of all.
The level of technical sophistication in the show is, as promised, impressive. Each of the many dragons in the show, whether earth-bound or flying, is remotely controlled by a team of puppeteers who manipulate a huge range of movements on the creatures' bodies.
Where this show errs is in its reliance on the digital projections, which often serve to take audiences out of the fantasy by employing a level of animation far below Dreamworks' film standards. It's telling that the children of two colleagues of mine at the show each mentioned its playful dancing as a highlight - out of all the flashing, flaming and smoke-breathing production values it contained. That ought to make the choreographers and theater directors of the world confident that the post-Facebook generation will want the same things out of theater that we do.
Because of their physical presence and the craft that went into them, the animatronics themselves were impressive dramatic tools. As were, of course, the show's many gifted actors. As Dreamworks and others build out other successful film franchises into arena shows or stage productions, they should not try to produce shows that pause halfway between film and live performance. Where the immediacy of live theater is concerned, the best approach is to go all-in.
What: "How to Train Your Dragon"
When: Through Sunday
Where: First Niagara Center