On Dec. 6, 1964, Robert Penola and thousands of other kids around the country sat down in front of their parents’ televisions to watch Rankin/Bass’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the first time.
“I’m old enough to be part of the special club that saw it the first time it aired,” says Penola, who was the second-oldest of six. “I was terrified of the abominable snowman. I loved Rudolph and I was always concerned about the doll, because I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her.”
Watching “Rudolph” became a family tradition for Penola, who made a point to catch it every year until 1997, when travel kept him from squeezing it in. It wasn’t until March 1998 that he made time to watch it. As he watched, Penola, who worked in theater, wondered why “Rudolph” had never been adapted for the stage.
“It had great characters and songs and the songs advance the plot – all things you want in musical theater,” he says. “Most of the characters aren’t human, but you can get around that.”
He immediately started working on a treatment for the theatrical production, although it took years to procure permission from the original writers and work out the technical aspects of transferring stop-motion animation characters that are instantly recognizable to the stage.
The first production was for a theater company in Milwaukee called First Stage in 2012. It was such a hit that a national tour launched two years later. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical” brightens the stage at Ovens Auditorium Wednesday.
Adapting “Rudolph” wasn’t without its challenges.
“The No. 1 challenge was: Will Rudolph and the other reindeer be on two legs or four?” he says. “We went to other productions where these humans are playing animals, like ‘Cats’ or ‘The Lion King.’ The most important part was to communicate human emotion, to see the face, while the entire costume mimics the looks of the original characters.”
Retaining the look of the TV special was key.
“Even the colors of the North Pole and Santa’s Castle are very pop art, with purples and pinks that aren’t traditional Christmas colors,” he says. “We went Pantone color by Pantone color.”
The producers resisted any attempts to veer from the original look and story.
“Any time we tried anything to step away from the original, it didn’t work,” Penola says. “We did have one area where we did enhance the show. The show actually again gave us our road map. We need to lengthen the experience to make it a full-length show.”
Instead of adding to the story, the musical’s producers expanded on songwriter Johnny Marks’s original songs.
“There’s music in the special that you’ll hear a few notes of, (like ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’) that come from the catalog of songs by Johnny Marks,” Penola says. “We placed them in the same place you’d see them in the special to give it a little more heft without feeling like we were being inauthentic.”
The theme of celebrating differences remains an important one more than 50 years later.
“You’ve got an elf and a reindeer who do not fit in,” he says. “But the things that make them different are the things that make them special, and make them able to affect others in a positive way. I think that makes the story even more relevant today.”
‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical’
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Ovens Auditorium, 2700 E. Independence Blvd.
Details: 800-745-3000; www.tickemaster.com