My husband and I have been taking our granddaughter Ava to stage presentations since she was three. She is now eight and has her own opinions about what makes good theatre, and one of her complaints about some productions is that they require adult actors to play children. As Ava insists, "It just isn't believable." I agree. It often seems forced.
So after I was asked to review the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's children's musical The Most Famous Reindeer of All, I invited Ava along. She reluctantly agreed. But at the November 27 show, there were no adults playing kids. Instead, the cast boasted elves, reindeer, Santa, a witch, and a snowflake ... and my granddaughter totally bought it and loved it. Go figure!
Author Greylyn Gregory's version of the Rudolph story is a play-within-a-play featuring Nicholas Munson's narrator Sammy the Snowflake. Munson's performance does sparkle as he attempts to be the show's star, although he's kept in supporting-actor line by stage manager Heather Reid (the show's actual stage manager). At times, Munson effectively engages the audience members by talking directly to them and eliciting responses, and on Friday, even some of the youngest theatre-goers weren't bashful about chiming in. As Ava said, "I like him, he's funny" - high praise from The Most Famous Reindeer of All's target demographic. (And, again, I agree.) My only distraction concerning Sammy was that his costume could've been so much more than a sport jacket with large felt snowflakes sewn on. Making him look like one big snowflake would've made more sense and bumped up the comedic factor.
Ben Cramer's Rudolph is endearing, his innocence likely helping young patrons relate to the reindeer's feelings of inadequacy. Janos Horvath as Santa, and Brad Hauskins as Ike the elf, each wholly embody their characters and give strong performances. And woven throughout the story are lessons that include "It's okay to be different, "Believe in yourself," "Have a big heart," "Don't be a bully," and "Work hard to achieve your goals." A lesson about love is also learned by Rudolph when he overcomes the taunts from Rocket (Sheldon Rogers) and tries to befriend Doe-e, played by Cydney Roelandt. The duet "Rain Dear," sung by Cramer and Roelandt, was an especially sweet moment and a favorite scene of Ava's and the two tweens at the next table (who shared this info with me after the show).
Director/choreographer Andrea Moore and musical director Rachelle Walljasper effectively employ their great cast and, aided by composer John Spencer's music, deliver a family musical that's entertaining without being heavy-handed, the dance numbers simple yet energetic. The only number that doesn't seem to fit is "Rockin' Reindeer." All of the other songs are pertinent to the story and some help reinforce the aforementioned lessons, but the "Rockin'" number, although performed well by Cramer, Roelandt, and Rogers, just seems like filler.
Santa, his elves, and his reindeer are in standard-issue costumes ... but designer Gregory Hiatt pulls out all the stops for the Ice Witch. Her full-length, silver, shimmering dress trimmed in white fur and topped with a Glinda-like crown - one brightly illuminated with tiny white lights - gives actress Miranda Jane a look that any Disney villainess would envy. (When she made her first entrance, I heard audience members gasp.) Jane's performance as the Ice Witch is similarly masterful, while not being too scary for the youngest audience members.
The production's best use of tech comes when the Ice Witch creates a snowstorm, and a large projection screen, hanging as a center backdrop, shows snow falling. (Until then, the screen had only shown static images of trees.) However, the projector and screen could've been used more creatively and effectively, considering the sparse scenery consisted merely of three small, flat, painted pine trees flanking each side of the stage.
The Most Famous Reindeer of All ends with Sammy the Snowflake finally getting his chance to sing in the show (plus an audience sing-along to, of course, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer"), and adheres to the Disney formula: a character trying to find his way; friends who help him; a troublesome villain; a love interest saved from harm; lessons; humor; songs; a happy ending. But this is a chance for children to see a familiar story in a different way, and Circa '21's cast and crew have crafted a production that's smart, entertaining, and well-done. When I asked my granddaughter what she would say to people about the experience, she said, "It is a good show for kids to see because they can use their imaginations." That's the magic of live theatre!
The Most Famous Reindeer of All runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through December 27, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.