Dallas — Wishing Star Productions producer Christopher Deaton, artistic director Joe Sturgeon, and president Doug LoPachin each recall very vivid memories associated with the 1964 Rankin/Bass, stop-motion production of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the stage musical stage adaptation.
Deaton, who played Hermey in the musical’s original production at Casa Mañana, thought that his costume up-close had scared a little girl after the show, only to discover that she was inconsolably sobbing because it was over. LoPachin, who has played Santa every year, recalled a friend’s two-year old granddaughter being so mesmerized by the play that she asked him to “Do it again” when it was over.
Perhaps the most striking story is that of Sturgeon. At the age of seven, he threw a fit when his parents nearly replaced watching the stop-motion movie with going to a friend’s Christmas party. Back then, he noted that if you missed the original run time, you missed the TV special for the entire year. Deaton pointed out that the urgency of watching the special is nearly gone.
“One of the things in talking about it is specifically, like with Joe’s story, that sort of anticipation and the once a year event is sort of gone,” Deaton says. “You can find the TV special on YouTube, actually. You can go pick it up at Sam’s Club on DVD, you can DVR it, I have it on VHS.”
However, the tour of the stage production brings back a hint of that immediacy and excitement. Sturgeon adds that “watching Rudolph on TV is no longer an event like it used to be, but coming to see it live can still fill that gap.”
Authenticity is an absolutely crucial part of the stage adaptation. The songs, recorded by a New York studio orchestra specifically for this production, are true to the originals, composed by Johnny Marks. Sturgeon finds the biggest challenge to be in staying true to the iconic feature, while making it a fresh piece of theater.
“Even though everything that you would see in the Christmas special we bring to the table, we do have some extras,” Sturgeon says. “I’ve worked with the licensing company, and all the music in the show is written by the same writer, Johnny Marks, of the original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. We’ve taken some other Johnny Marks’ songs [not in the original feature] and put them, as sort of extra surprises, just to sort of expand the material a little bit, to give it its own life beyond the special.”
The actors found themselves having to do the same with their portrayal of the feature’s main cast, especially the iconic Sam the Snowman, originally voiced by Burl Ives and performed in this production by Colin Phillips.
“There was a balancing act, because I’m a 22-year old being asked to impersonate a dude who was about 65 at that point,” Phillips says. “It’s now kind of this balancing act, finding the correct amount of energy to bring to a stage performance while still kind of keeping true to that folksy, everybody’s-grandpa nature that Burl Ives [had].”
Head puppeteer Steph Garrett agreed that the while puppeteers brought that commitment to the original in their work, the stop-motion aspect could not be carried through completely in the stage adaptation.
“The special was stop-motion, and getting all the puppets to move in stop-motion wasn’t necessarily something we could achieve live while still making them live on stage,” Garrett says. “Having a bunny move in stop-motion, especially in the big houses that we’re going to be playing, it just wouldn’t read and somebody would think that the puppeteer was confused.”
Everyone involved in the production grew up on the TV movie, and actors find nostalgia in being able to bring these characters to life.
“I really do kind of enjoy putting myself in Rudolph’s mindset,” says Leo Thomasian, who plays Rudolph. “He’s very innocent, very wondrous, and it’s really nice to be in touch with that side of myself. It’s kind of nice to be back there. It feels like you go back 15 years in age, when you’re five, six, seven years old again, and everything is new and exciting.”
Deaton noted that many consider this special to be for children, but it is a legitimate piece of theater with a big message.
“Steff said this in rehearsal the other day, that ‘The stakes are high’ for all of the characters,” Deaton says. “Hermey ventures out on his own, leaves everything he knows.”
Another huge message, embodied especially in “The Island of Misfit Toys” segment, is that your differences make you unique.
“The moments that we remember are feeling for Hermey, who wants to be something different than he’s being forced into being, or not being able to play with other [reindeer],” Sturgeon says. “Finding those moments of truth are what really make the show successful.”
» This year's tour has already been in Fort Worth and Austin, and plays the Majestic Theatre in Dallas Dec. 3-6. After that, the tour continues in the following locations:
- Plaza Theatre (El Paso), Dec. 8-9
- Globe-News Center (Amarillo), Dec. 11
- Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center (Midland), Dec. 15
- Civic Center Auditiorium (Abilene), Dec. 17
- The Grand 1894 Opera House (Galveston), Dec. 19
- Tobin Center for the Performing Arts (San Antonio), Dec. 21-24