Nothing says Christmas like an auditorium full of round-eyed children, enthralled by the mystery and magic of snowmen and furry animals who speak — and fly. And nothing is more charming than a story of goodness and warmth like the one about Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer — it’s the perfect start to the holiday season for children (and adults) who still believe in the fantasy of Santa Claus!
The A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts filled to the rafters with bright little faces during the opening-day matinee of the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts’ annual production of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical. Little boys in bowties carrying Rudolph stuffed toys. Little girls with perfectly twisted curls and studious round glasses posed for photos beside the blow-ups of Sam the Snowman, Rudolph, Clarice, and the Island of Misfit Toys in the theater lobby. Toddlers lined up with parents and grandparents to get their faces painted like snow princesses or reindeer.
The tale, made popular by the 1964 animated cartoon, which starred Burl Ives, a round, white-haired musician who bore a distinct resemblance to Old Saint Nick himself, yet Ives’ character in the show is the narrator, Sam the Snowman. In this season’s version, T. Philip Caudle plays Sam with a respectful nod to the character Ives became best known for, though his career spanned 60 years, with a foray into country music and an Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actor in The Big Country in 1958.
Caudle, a well-known Raleigh-area performer, navigates the Fletcher stage in an unwieldy snowman’s suit and makes it look simple. As narrator of the story, he reaches out to the audience and keeps the action flowing smoothly around him. It’s his deep, sonorous voice that enthralls the little faces throughout the theater.
It is a credit to director Alan Coats that the stage scenes come off without a hitch, particularly since the costumes and puppetry require actors to be on their knees or moving awkwardly. Coats’ experience with other holiday shows (this is his seventh) equip him with the expertise to direct over 40 productions with the North Carolina Theatre.
Joining him to bring this story to life are musical director Michael Santangelo, production managers Lucas Johnson and Caroline Domack, lighting designer Jennifer Sherrod, and sound designer Eric Alexander Collins, as well as the many other working professionals who team together to create all the moving parts of such a production.
Santa and Mrs. Claus rumble through the production as a little scatterbrained. Mrs. Claus (Alexandra Finazzo) chases Santa (Alex Reynolds) with a spoon throughout the story, attempting to get him to eat because “No one will believe in a skinny Santa.” They play off each other in typical fashion: loving yet irascible in costumes that make them more like the puppets from the original TV show than real-to-life Christmas icons.
The theme of dealing with bullying and rising above is not something new to this story. Anyone who knows the Rudolph song knows that “All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names,” but what we don’t think of when we sing those words every season is the powerful positive message it gives to those children who might be bullying victims. And each of the characters in the tale also arises to the occasion and becomes somewhat of a hero when the time is right.
To make the message of loving yourself even more powerful, the story (originally written by Romeo Muller — who was, ironically, another Burl Ives/Sam the Snowman lookalike) includes other misunderstood or left-behind characters like Hermey the Elf (played hysterically by Sean Michael Jaenicke, a Raleigh-based actor), the Misfit Toys (including a jack-in-the-box named Charlie), and even Bumble the Abominable Snowman (played by Hayden Tyler, a Triangle choreographer, actor, and teacher), whose only reason for roaring is an impacted tooth. Muller, who was both an actor and writer, wrote some of the best-known Christmas shows, developing iconic stories watched by new generations each year: Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Frosty the Snowman, and The Little Drummer Boy.
But the best casting of all is Rudolph himself. Melvin Gray, Jr. plays the beloved reindeer with a pure sweetness that is synonymous with Rudolph’s persona, and he sings his parts in a voice that is neither comedic nor whiny, but rather real and believable. Though his costume face is actually atop his head (causing the children to whisper, “Rudolph’s a man!”), Gray totally involves himself in the character, bringing to life the tale of how Santa relies on the red-nosed reindeer to bring his sleigh through a very foggy Christmas night.
For an absolutely enjoyable, child-friendly way to rest after shopping all day, treat your little ones to the enchanted world of Rudolph at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater through Monday, Dec. 24th.
SECOND OPINION: Nov. 21st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/rudolph-the-musical/.
Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts presents RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER: THE MUSICAL at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Nov. 24 and 25, 6:30 p.m. Nov. 30, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Dec. 1, 2 p.m. Dec. 2, 6:30 p.m. Dec. 7, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Dec. 8 and 9, 6:30 p.m. Dec. 14, 11 a.m. and 2 and 5 p.m. Dec. 15, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Dec. 16, 6:30 p.m. Dec. 21, 11 a.m. and 2 and 5 p.m. Dec. 22 and 23, and 11 a.m. Dec. 24 in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
Duke Energy Center Box Office: 919-996-8700 or email@example.com (information only). GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/group-and-corporate-ticket-sales.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/369155/989755.
SHOW: http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/event/rudolph-the-red-nosed-reindeer-the-musical-8300, https://www.facebook.com/events/713440832340202/, and https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/events/rudolph-red-nosed-reindeer-musical.
PRESENTER: https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DECRaleigh/, and https://twitter.com/decraleigh.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical (2013 Christmas musical): http://www.rudolphthemusical.com/ (official website for the annual tour) and https://www.facebook.com/rudolphthemusicaltour/.
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.