Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical
The animated television special takes the stage at Madison Square Garden.
Few holiday traditions are more beloved than the Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials. The Year Without a Santa Claus, The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town: They're all iconic for their use of stop-motion animation to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year. Foremost among them is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which has aired on CBS around Christmastime every year since 1964. Nostalgic adults will delight in seeing Rudolph, Santa, and Hermey the dentist elf live onstage in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical, now making its New York debut at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Their kids, on the other hand, may not be as thrilled.
Adapted for the stage by Robert Penola, the show faithfully follows Romeo Muller's teleplay: Reindeer couple Donner (Jon M. Wailin) and Mrs. Donner (Melissa Glasgow) beget Rudolph (Sarah Errington), a spunky young reindeer with a curious birth defect: Instead of coal-black, his nose glows bright red like a lightbulb (the original TV airing was sponsored by General Electric). Donner tries to help his son fit in by masking his nose in a black sock during the reindeer games, an annual event during which Santa (Doug LoPachin) scouts young reindeer for their flying ability. Unfortunately, Rudolph's sock falls off, leading all of the other Reindeer to laugh and call him names. With no prospect of making Santa's sleigh team, Rudolph and dentist wannabe elf Hermey (Wesley Edwards) flee Christmas town, eventually meeting prospector Yukon Cornelius (Fred Inkley) and a whole island of misfit toys. But with a massive winter storm about to hit the North Pole, Santa might just find a use for Rudolph after all.
All of the Johnny Marks songs from the TV special are here, smartly arranged by Timothy Splain. Adding to the toe-tapping fun, the creators have included Marks' "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" as a second production number for the elves (like a lot of Jewish-American composers, Marks excelled at writing Christmas songs). Director-choreographer Dana Solimando gives the elves jerky jitterbug choreography that somewhat simulates the effect of stop-motion animation and the talented ensemble proves more than up to the task of performing it.
Standing out from the chorus, Anthony Marone steals every scene he's in as a misfit jack-in-the-box named Charlie. His Frank Nelson voice is just so over-the-top ridiculous that we cannot help but laugh. Errington and Edwards make a great pair as Rudolph and Hermey (whose pristine row of pearly whites really hammers home the dentist plot point). It is hilarious and thrilling to watch Errington fly across the stage like some hybrid of Mary Martin and Lucille Ball.
Our narrator is Sam the Snowman, a role originated for TV by Burl Ives. Steve Watkins boldly charts a path away from Ives in his portrayal of Sam, but it comes off a bit Eeyore, leaving us to worry about this chronically depressed snow person.
That partially has to do with his unfortunate costume: A bulbous bottom and abdomen dwarf the actor's normal-sized head, which is just painted white. He appears to be melting into himself. Other than that notable misfire, Hardrive Productions' costumes successfully conjure the film to a tee, from boxy elf robes to Santa's perfectly rounded beard (fantastical wigs by Anthony Gagliardi).
The set also re-creates the pointy and artificial Christmas tree forest around the proscenium (no designer is credited). Unfortunately, Infante Media's fuzzy projections make an ugly addition to the mise-en-scène. When lyrics are projected for a sing-along, the text appears smushed and the bouncing snowflake is unable to keep up with the tempo of the music.
That second-act sing-along of Sliver and Gold arrives like the cavalry after the battle is over in Solimando's workmanlike staging. By then, only the most well-behaved little boys and girls are still paying attention. Solimando delivers a fine imitation of the film, but she doesn't add much to make this event specifically theatrical. Her by-the-book staging gets the job done, but only that. It seems that kids these days need a lot more to stay engaged. Sadly, the performers regularly have to compete with the significant din of a restless audience.
If you hold fond memories of Rudolph and you want to pass it onto the next generation, I recommend sitting near the back of the house where the seating is raked. The front section of the Theater at MSG is not kind to short viewers. Of course, you could always just watch the TV special from the comfort of your own home.