Christmas TV specials have become their own traditions, right alongside tree decorating, caroling, drinking eggnog, and waiting in line for hours in the frigid cold for a 25 percent off coffee maker. TV specials provide the perfect respite from the cold while also getting the family together. And no other TV special has done that more than the 1964 classic, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Now as the special’s anniversary draws near, the time to celebrate this classic has never been better thanks to the great efforts of First Stage.
“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” tells the story of Rudolph, a reindeer ostracized from the rest of his group for being born with a glowing red nose. He meets up with the equally expelled Hermey, an elf with a knack for dentistry, and Yukon Cornelius, and eccentric prospector. What follows is a great adventure filled with abominable snow monsters and misfit toys in which the misfits learn to embrace themselves and the qualities that make them special.
Everything from the classic is emulated to a tee in this show. The simple, geometric white design of the stage, the costumes, most of the lines of dialogue, the sound design, and more are all modeled after the design of the original special. Even the tiniest of details are present, like the way Cornelius’s pickaxe spins in the air when thrown or when the ornaments fall of the tree when Rudolph says “independent.”
One might be turned off by the fact that it’s a children’s show, but allow me to put your qualms to rest. All of the actors, from the adults to the children, do a good job with portraying the many moods of the show. The acting tends to gets lost in the impressive set and prop design, but it’s strong enough to pull through and convey the story for those that haven’t seen the special. They also had no trouble with their lines, which is actually unsurprising considering that they memorized the whole special ever since they were much younger. Even the choreography of the many musical numbers, despite their simplicity, are bouncy and fun enough to be enjoyable.
The people that truly make this play come to life however, are the tech people. The white-clad ninjas of theater are responsible for not only moving around the scenery during scene changes, but for achieving much of the stage magic in the show. They are responsible for the puppetry of the animals and misfit toys, which look and act as if they were taken straight out of the TV. Cornelius’s aforementioned spinning pickaxe is controlled by one of these ninjas. Part of how well they work is dedicated to the simplicity of the white background, allowing for them to blend in and wheel around Sam the Snowman, allowing him to glide around the stage like he did in the cartoon.
The highlight of the tech people’s magic is, of course, the abominable snowman (or the Bumble as they are called.) The Bumble is first introduced as he looms next to Santa’s castle, staring at our heroes from the distance. By placing the Bumble near Santa’s Castle, it makes the initially nonthreatening puppet much larger and scarier when placed in comparison to Santa’s immense dwelling. He is then depicted as one large arm, swiping at our heroes. But then he fully comes on stage as one complete figure, towering above our heroes as his eyes shift and his hands grasp out to catch them. To this day, I have never seen a stage monster as well built up and presented as this one, turning a huggable mascot into a huge and scary beast. But if I have one criticism, it’s that his tree topping skills need a bit of work.
Unfortunately, because it’s nearly the same as the special, the show doesn’t form an identity of its own. I can see some people being more inclined to just watch the TV special over this performance. And because it’s a near emulation, the audience expects everything to be in its rightful place; which means that when something is just a little off or when the show does try to differentiate from the special, it comes off as awkward and the audience is left puzzled.
But obviously because were dealing with an adaptation of an entirely different medium, there’s going to be a few grey areas. This is most evident in some of the costuming. The arms and torsos of the reindeer costumes are not covered with fur like the rest of the costume. This allows for freer movement of the arms and torso, but to the audience it looks like the entire reindeer population is plagued by mange.
But despite its lack of an identity, the presentation of the classic tale is so well done that the audience does not mind that we’re just seeing the same special we’ve been watching for the past 50 years. And in the end, isn’t that what we all wanted in the first place? As Mrs. Claus would put it, “You keep it just the way it was.” So despite a few discrepancies, First Stage manages to pull off a thoroughly enjoyable and beautiful production that appeals to everyone young and old and is worth seeing even after watching the TV special for the 50th time.
The performance is playing at the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and is running from November 28 to December 28. Visit the show’s page on First Stage’s website for more information on show times.