‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ ushers in Christmas season
By Catey Sullivan For Sun-Times Media November 14, 2013 4:32PM
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical" rings in the holiday season.
RED-NOSED REINDEER: THE MUSICAL’
♦ Through Dec. 29 at Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago
♦ Tickets, $18-$40
♦ (800) 775-2000;
Updated: December 16, 2013 6:11AM
What with all the flying reindeer, talking toys, singing snowmen, hat with all the flying reindeer, talking toys, singing snowmen and Bumble (that 19-foot-tall Abominable Snowman), the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer might seem like a strictly seasonal fantasyland. But don’t be fooled, says Arlington Heights, Ill., fifth-grader Cody Bolithon, 10, who plays the titular flashy-faced reindeer in the show, which opened Nov. 14 at Broadway Playhouse.
“The story shows people that if you’re a misfit and you don’t fit in, it’s going to get better. There will be a place where you can fit in and you don’t have to do what everybody else is doing,” he says. “Like for me, I like musical theater but not many of the kids in my school understand that; most kids are into pop music or sports and I’m the one who sits in the corner listening to show tunes. But that’s OK.”
That sums up the endearing, enduring appeal behind the story that became a Yuletide touchstone with the 1964 stop-motion animation TV musical “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It’s that version, famously narrated by Burl Ives as a sage and singing snowman, that director Jeff Frank and his team at Milwaukee’s First Stage, in a joint effort with Broadway in Chicago and the Emerald City Theatre, has brought to Chicago. The show strives to replicate the spectacle of the TV original — with the use of live actors and puppetry — as well as the winning score that includes a celebratory rendition of the familiar title tune among other holiday favorites.
“When the audience walks in, we want them to feel like they’ve walked into the TV special, that they are immersed in a world that feels completely familiar but that they’re seeing anew,” Frank said.
Those of us of a certain age can’t think of Rudolph without conjuring memories of that world and the story of the unhappy, scarlet-nosed young reindeer that goes from outcast to hero one foggy Christmas Eve. Frank, 48, and puppeteer Brandon Kirkham, 30, set out to re-create the story onstage, remaining fiercely loyal to their source material.
Supersizing Donner, Bumble, Rudolph and friends for the stage meant working hand in glove with the Connecticut-based Character Arts LLC, the company that owns the rights to the original characters. Kirkham and his team of puppet masters spent months researching precisely what materials were used in the TV event, and then figuring out how to capture their aesthetics onstage.
“The people who own the rights? They love their brand and they protect it mightily, as they should. So we’re constantly communicating with them in terms of fabric textures, colors and the overall look,” Kirkham said.
It hasn’t been easy: Figuring out a way to make Sam the Snowman human-sized without losing his decidedly not-human roly-poly snowman proportions was tricky. So was crafting the fierce Bumble. Then there was the epic task of creating spectacle and putting the entire Island of Misfit Toys — not to mention the Bumble’s scary, snowy mountain aerie and Santa’s flying sleigh — onstage.
“There’s lots of fleece and fake fur,” said Kirkham, a southern Indiana native who as a child would upend his home’s kitchen chairs and pretend they were Santa’s sleigh.
The piece has been retooled and improved for its Chicago premiere.
“For Chicago, we’ve added a lot of elements,” Frank said. “Given the size of the stage in Chicago we were able to do things here we couldn’t there. We added height to the Bumble, built up the snowdrifts, added LED lighting to the snowflakes, put in a much larger Christmas tree at the end of the show, things like that. Plus, we’ve redesigned a lot of the spectacle.”
The essential story? That remains untouched. “For some kids, I hope when they see this and they’ve been mean to someone else, maybe they’ll understand that they should be a bit nicer,” Cody said. “And maybe the kids they were being mean to, maybe they’ll realize that it gets better and that you don’t always have to do what everybody else is doing.”