Whenever there’s a new take on a beloved story, to the point that it’s become part of popular culture, it’s met with skepticism (and sometimes – in the case of Fox’s recent live-TV reimagining of “A Christmas Story,” for instance – the critical equivalent of a snowball to the face).
Understandably, there might have been similar trepidation about the stage musical of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which made a tour stop at Ovens Auditorium Wednesday.
Turned out the staging of “Rudolph” as a live-action performance was cuter and better executed than I could’ve imagined. But it was because of the simple touches and subtle use of modern technology that it works. Instead of a big, blazing LED extravaganza with dancing robots and a mechanical yeti, “Rudolph” featured a mix of live actors dressed in costumes patterned after the original stop-animation cartoon.
While the faces of Rudolph, Donnor, Clarice and the other reindeer were visible through the necks of their reindeer suits, your line of sight could easily create suspension of disbelief because their towering heads, big eyes and noses look exactly like they do in the TV special. And the actors did a good job of capturing the essence and physicality of the characters. Rudolph’s stuffy-nosed voice for one was spot on.
There are also puppets representing the bunnies, owls and raccoons, operated by people who sometimes hide behind pine trees and ice blocks, camouflaged in their white winter wear, and sometimes are visible to the crowd. Yet their facial expressions are so animated as their puppets appear to hop and climb that it’s almost endearing to see them.
And frankly, making the people being the magic visible seems like a good choice for small children who might be frightened by giant costumed characters or more robotic stand-alone animals. Even Bumble, the abominable snowman – a dead ringer for his stop-motion counterpart – was controlled by handlers who moved his arms as he growled.
When technology did come into play, it was to whip a flying Rudolph or windblown elf through the air via wires, or to quickly change the background or create space between the narrator Sam the Snowman and the action.
The elves were adorable, dancing and singing to Santa and Mrs. Claus, and ribbing Hermey – the elf who wants to be a dentist – for his un-elfish ways. The story follows Rudolph, Hermey and crowd favorite Yukon Cornelius to the Island of Misfit Toys.
Although the length of Robert Penola’s script was extended for the musical, the only uneven spot was a blip in the story. I was lost during the rescue scene, when Hermey removes Bumble’s tooth. How he became aware of the bothersome tooth wasn’t clearly addressed. That scene seemed rushed and could use more exposition. Or maybe that’s how it is in the original. (I remember as a child trying to connect the dentistry storyline with the rest of the piece. Maybe its brief resolution was why.)
Aside from that rather anticlimactic climax, “Rudolph” was a joy. Thanks to meticulous attention to detail in the costuming, sets and actors’ voices, it seems like a new version even haters can love.