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‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ Gets an Update

First Stage transforms a holiday TV favorite for live performance

Nov. 15, 2016
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Photo by Paul Ruffolo

Cartoon animals play in the white snow and among the geometric rocks; a line of newspapers with breaking news of intense snowstorms flash across the screen. A snowman makes a grand appearance, the warmth of his character in stark contrast to his icy body. Frank doesn’t want to share how they’ll make it happen this year, saying only that as the snowman glides across the space, he and the elves sing “Holly Jolly Christmas.” 

From the description above, you may have guessed that this marked the beginning of that holiday favorite, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical. First Stage has adapted the enduringly popular 1964 Christmas TV special for a live production at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

In 2011, the show’s director, Jeff Frank, got in contact with Character Arts, the sole licensing entity of Rudolph who were looking for a stage production of the special. When First Stage debuted its adaptation in 2012, it became a sold-out box office success that left audiences impressed. It became the template for a number of productions by other theater companies in other cities. In addition, First Stage performed the show in Chicago as a co-production with Emerald City Theatre in 2013 and then in Milwaukee again in 2014. 

Scenic and puppet designer Brandon Kirkham wanted to create a unified look for the show. He worked closely with Character Arts so that the set, costumes, puppets and even the colors of the spots on the spotted elephant were just right. The young actors constantly step toe to heel to give the illusion of moving like reindeer.

“There’s a real specificity in terms of creating an authentic look and feel so that audiences come and they really feel like they’re stepping into the world of the stop-motion special,” Frank says.

But the show is not a complete remake. Frank says that all the language of the TV special was there but how it’s arranged and put together is different. Frank feels that sometimes it was hard to feel sympathetic for Donner, Rudolph’s father, in the special. So when Donner is teaching Rudolph about reindeer life, he made a point to show the two laughing and enjoying each other to better communicate that even though Donner is misguided he’s coming from a place of love.

“People will swear that it was exactly the special,” Frank adds. “But it’s not exactly the special. … But I’m glad that they feel that. They feel that authenticity.”

One of the things First Stage had to figure out early on was how to make Rudolph and the other reindeer fly. Frank decided to use kokens, silent performers who dressed in black so they can blend in with the black background and manipulate pieces of the set, props and actors to create the illusion of movement and flight. But since the entire set had to be white, the kokens needed to be white too. So the kokens became “snowkens” as Frank called them. 

Frank also wanted Sam the Snowman to glide around the stage like he did in the special. Actor Robert Spencer will sit in a sort of mini igloo for the snowman’s body on a platform with casters on the bottom. One of the kokens, primarily Tim Linn, will then grab the metal bars extending from the igloo and wheel Sam around the stage. 

By far their most impressive creation is the 12-foot-tall Abominable Snowman (aka Bumble) puppet. Linn is inside the body moving the eyes and head while kokens manipulate the arms. The combination of puppetry and kokens can make it look like they’re picking up Clarice. “This is how we’re bringing the story to life,” Frank explains. “We’re having all of these people assist your imagination in seeing all of these things.”

Frank further honed this season’s show by using things learned from past productions. For instance, First Stage wasn’t completely happy with how they portrayed Bumble sinking into water. Frank doesn’t want to share how they make it happen, saying only that they use a trick learned from Goosebumps the Musical.

For Frank, bringing back Rudolph couldn’t have been timelier. “In light of all the things that are happening in this world and the divisiveness and hate moving around, to come and experience something with your family that is about love and joy and family and friendship and honor and finding your place, finding your way or, as Rudolph does, lighting the way for others … there’s a depth of meaning to it that’s really important for us to hear now.”

First Stage performs Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Nov. 25-Dec. 31 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Todd Wehr Theater, 929 N. Water St. For tickets visit firststage.org or call 414-267-2961.

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