In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

First Stage has a true family show with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical." (PHOTO: Paul Ruffalo)

First Stage's "Rudolph: The Musical" offers a magical sleigh ride

There is nothing like the holidays in Milwaukee. VISIT Milwaukee is here to share your top shopping destinations, must-see holiday shows, where to meet Kris Kringle and local gifts you can't resist. Tune in all month long and 'tis the season!

With almost all of its nearly 500 seats filled, a magic sleigh ride about a reindeer with a red nose took off over the weekend at the Todd Wehr Theatre in the Marcus Center.

Under the guidance of director Jeff Frank, this remount – "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical" – serves to remind everyone that First Stage does a type of theater – truly family theater – that is unique in Milwaukee, with production levels as outstanding as The Rep or any other theater in this city.

The story of Rudolph is familiar to anyone who has lived through a Christmas season. It's the young reindeer who, with his bright red nose, leads Santa's sleigh with his brilliant light through a storm-tossed Christmas Eve tour to deliver presents to children all nestled snug in their beds.

But this version of the story is so much more than just a gift-laden tour through the holiday season that overwhelms this country on an annual basis (God help the Muslims or Jews or Buddhists who have to live through "Silent Night" or "O Holy Night" year after year).

This version of "Rudolph" is about the children who are different and have to live in a world that frequently doesn't well tolerate different or odd or curious. Bullying is often the response to different children, and it's most often directed at children who live in a world of their own. Just take a look at the increase in the outright disgusting behavior to Latinos and gays and others who live outside the mainstream of White America.

This Rudolph (Jack Trettin, who I saw in the Silver Cast) doesn't deal with issues like bullying explicitly, but it does deal with the special place that misfits have in the world.

Rudolph himself begins life as such a misfit with none of the other members of the reindeer herd able to get their arms around this different being. He's left outside all of the mainstream until he gets close with Clarice (Terynn Erby-Walker). Her promise to walk home with Rudolph after flight practice sends him into the stratosphere with joy. She's his first girlfriend, and he's thrilled.

Once Rudolph learns to fly, he and his fellow misfit friend, Hermey (Zach Duckler), an elf who wants to be a dentist, set off in search of Rudolph's missing parents. Among the places they visit is the island of misfit toys.

Think of a Charlie in a Box (instead of Jack), a train missing one wheel and a toy bird that couldn't fly. It's on that island that we all learn the lesson that "a toy is never truly happy until it is loved by a child."

In the end, of course, all the bullying ends, Rudolph takes over the lead in his harness and everyone lives happily ever after.

This "Rudolph" was originally conceived by Frank and, since it's debut at First Stage in 2012, has been produced in many theaters throughout the country. It's a marvelous story based on the classic television special.

And one of the most important and spectacular qualities of this production is the work of Brandon Kirkham, who designed the scene, costumes and puppets. Kirkham has created a snow-dappled cavern of entrancing brilliance. Combined with the delicate and moving lighting of the always-creative Jason Fassl, the audience was embraced in a warm and caring atmosphere.

The audience at the production was a perfect example of why First Stage has a reach that extends beyond children. When Rob Goodman founded First Stage, it was truly a children's theater, focused on young people for whom there was no other live theater in the city.

It has now moved into the realm of real family theater. Mothers and fathers brought children dressed in their finest for the holidays to the performance. All over the theater, parents alternated watching the play and watching their children enraptured by the action on the stage.

It's what any holiday season is about, watching children and adults join together to see the kind of magic that First Stage delivers every time out.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical" runs through Dec. 31 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

Production credits: Director, Jeff Frank; Choreographer, Chris Feiereisen; Movement Director, Matt Daniels; Scenic, Costume and Puppet Designer, Brandon Kirkham; Assistant Scenic Designer, Emily Lotz; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Assistant Lighting Designer, Aaron Siegmann; Sound Designer, Matt Whitmore; Stage Manager, Melissa L. Wanke; Assistant Stage Manager, Marissa Ashlyn Raby.


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