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Review: RUDOLPH THE MUSICAL is Festive Family Fun at FIRST STAGE

Review: RUDOLPH THE MUSICAL is Festive Family Fun at FIRST STAGE

Cult Classic Claymation Brought to Terrific Life

If you're looking to inject some holly-jolly cheer into your family's holiday season, let Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical light your way to Milwaukee's First Stage. Directed by Jeff Frank, the musical is based on the beloved 1964 Rankin/Bass TV special.

That TV special is of course inspired by the famous song about a reindeer with a shiny red nose who starts out a misfit and ends up saving Christmas by leading Santa's sleigh. The stage production is geared toward ages four and up, clocking in at about 70 minutes plus a brief intermission.

The production is not lightly inspired by the cult classic claymation. You can see the source material in every nook and cranny. Scenic, Puppet, and Costume Designer Brandon Kirkham has fantastically brought all the sights and sounds of the small screen to life before our very eyes. The puppetry throughout the show is particularly impressive, but more on that later.

From iconic elf costumes to familiar furry friends, fans of the TV special will be delighted to reunite with these festive favorites on stage. And for anyone new to Rudolph, this musical makes for a faithful rendition of the classic story -- a perfect introduction to the world of everyone's favorite flying reindeer.

I had the pleasure of seeing the Gold Cast during opening weekend. Eighth-grader Lucia Harris plays Rudolph with terrific spunk and strong vocals. Rudolph's fellow misfit, Hermey, is played by 16 year-old Abram Nelson. Nelson hits all the right notes as the eager and earnest wannabe dentist. Rudolph's crush, the darling doe Clarice, is played by eighth-grader Lauren DeGroot. She sings her charming solo "There's Always Tomorrow" with a clear, pretty voice.

Others in the cast of young performers play elves and puppeteers for woodland critters and misfit toys. There are about fifteen ensemble and specialty young-performer parts in all. As elves, the cast wins the day with their song "We Are Santa's Elves," all of them hilariously winded by the end of their big number. "The Island of Misfit Toys" is an Act Two favorite, not only because the singing is splendid, but the puppet toys themselves are so perfectly rendered to resemble their claymation counterparts.

But the best puppet of them all? The Abominable Snow Monster, AKA the Bumble. He will likely be any child's favorite part of the entire show. With his shifty eyes and detachable teeth, this Bumble is insanely fun. But does he bounce? You'll have to see Rudolph to find out. Or ask Bumble puppeteer, Tim Linn.

Still more favorite characters are brought to life by the adult performers in the cast. Tommy Novak narrates the show as Sam the Snowman in a bulbous, smile-inducing costume. Their lovely voice is a treat throughout, but "Silver and Gold" is a particular charmer -- particularly the little sing-long interlude.

As Coach Comet and Yukon Cornelius, Rick Pendzich gets ample opportunity to ham it up and earn lots of laughs. J.T. Backes is great as Boss Elf, the meanie-screamy elf in charge, and the misfit Charlie in the Box. David Flores and Karen Estrada make a charming Mr. and Mrs. Claus, respectively. And lastly, James Carrington and Ashley Oviedo lend strong support as Rudolph's parents, Donner and Mrs. Donner.

For the grand finale, the titular tune "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," this terrific show really brings it home. The entire cast floods the stage, filling the theater with merriment and song, and the audience is beckoned to sing along. Sing-alongs are always more fun when participation is as high as it is at First Stage. It's a joyful, convivial note to go out on, perfectly suited to the spirit of the season.

On the walk back to our car, I asked my six-year-old niece what her favorite part was. She replied, "I don't have one... Because they were all really cool!" Her only complaint was that Rudolph has only a red nose and not a rainbow-colored nose. I'll be sure to tell her to put that little wish on her Christmast list.

Rudolph runs through December 24, 2022, at First Stage.

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From This Author - Kelsey Lawler

  Kelsey Lawler is a copywriter by day and zealot for local theater by night. She earned her BA in Writing Intensive English from Marquette University in 2009, and has been working as an edito... (read more about this author)

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