“Wacky” has the ring of a bygone era, but it’s probably the best word to describe the Coterie’s antic production of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical.”
This show is based on a 1964 TV special that told the story of a misfit reindeer with stop-action animation and a big cast of voice actors headed by Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman. The story is centered on young Rudolph, a reindeer whose freakish glowing red nose becomes a source of ridicule among his peers, until Santa decides Rudolph’s nose will light the way through a blinding blizzard that almost forces him to cancel Christmas.
The program doesn’t list songwriting credits, but Rudolph as a pop-culture creation stemmed directly from a poem written by ad executive Robert May for Montgomery Ward. Millions of copies of the poem were handed out by department-store Santas. It was later put to music by Johnny Marks, who was May’s brother-in-law. When it was recorded by cowboy singer Gene Autry in 1949, it became a monster hit. The 45 rpm record purportedly sold 25 million copies.
Bottom line: Rudolph, literally a product of the frequently lamented crass commercialism of Christmas, has become a mythological holiday character as recognizable as Santa Claus, who, of course, stems from European folklore.
The Coterie production, directed by Jeff Church, is a decidedly lighthearted affair that may produce more laughs among adults than kids. It showcases some memorable performances, sophisticated comic puppetry and wildly imaginative costumes from designer Georgianna Londre Buchanan.
The piece is anchored by Ron Lackey as Sam the Snowman, who more or less serves as an emcee. Lackey is a big man with a big voice, and his smooth rendition of “Holly Jolly Christmas” at the top of the show sets the tone for all that follows. The score includes 10 songs (with reprises for four of them). Among them are instantly recognizable tunes, including “Jingle, Jingle, Jingle,” “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and the title song, which is saved for the finale.
This is a big cast with quite a few talented kids. The best adult performances are registered by Jake Walker, whose rendering of the Boss Elf is a memorable bit of sustained physical and vocal comedy, and Logan Black, who handles two roles: the harsh Coach Comet (a sort of drill sergeant for reindeer) and Yukon Cornelius, an Arctic adventurer hoping to find a gold strike.
Tony Pulford plays the title character, capturing a balance of naivete and rowdy enthusiasm. Rudolph’s innocent romance with Clarice (Lexi Morris) is surprisingly affecting. Other players, including Zachrey York as Santa and Emily Nan Phillips doing double duty as Mrs. Claus and Mrs. Donner, deliver serviceable performances. The show also incorporates six youngsters as Elves, each of whom contributes memorable comic details.
A gang of young puppeteers, all costumed in winter white, produce some of the biggest laughs in the show. Indeed, the technical side of this production is so well executed that ultimately it becomes more interesting than the performances or the material.
Scott Hobart’s scenic design for the North Pole is a whimsical vision of two-dimensional ice peaks, including one section that breaks off as an iceberg. His work also includes a slide that comes into play at one point. The remarkable toy and animal puppets come from Orlando Repertory Theatre, while some puppetry and props were produced by Ian R. Crawford and Trevor Frederiksen.
Buchanan’s costumes are impressive throughout. The reindeer outfits, each one a sort of jumpsuit topped off with a reindeer head, are amusing and effective. And her design for Sam the Snowman shapes him like an enormous Christmas tree ornament — meaning a smallish head atop a larger chest, which in turn sits on top of what in effect is an enormous snowball. Watching Lackey get into the costume might be a show unto itself, but as he moves across the stage, taking tiny steps with unseen feet, one simple thought entered my mind: I’ve never seen anything like it.
Put all these design elements together along with Art Kent’s lighting, David Kiehl’s sound and you get a seamless style that’s full of surprises.