The original "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" might not win a horse race for All-Time Best TV Christmas Special, but it would definitely place or show. The Center for Puppetry Arts' world premiere adaptation essentially offers a live re-creation of the Rankin/Bass classic from 1964, with puppets filling in for the animated figures. The Center's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer represents a complex, finely tuned achievement that brings some creative limitations with it, almost like elaborate gift wrap that upstages the Christmas present inside.
Jon Ludwig adapts and directs a licensed version of the original teleplay. The production draws on an unusually big behind-the-scenes effort, with six puppeteers manipulating about 60 puppets for every show. Puppet designer and builder Jason von Hinezmeyer watched the TV special 200 times, occasionally frame by frame, to ensure the puppets' physical details exactly matched up with their stop-motion counterparts.
Allison Murphy voices and operates Rudolph, who we follow from foal to scarlet-snouted outcast to point-rider on Santa's sleigh. The main characters — Rudolph, Hermey the dental-obsessed elf, the "Skinny Santa" — look exactly like you remember them. The production obsessively retains nearly every character, including all of the misfit toys with singing parts, the talking elf with the black-framed glasses, and even props like the gold nugget from the "Silver and Gold" number are dead ringers. The only no-shows were Yukon Cornelius' dogs.
The Center even replicates the teleplay's structure, beginning with the newspaper headlines warning about the bad weather. Grown-ups can tell where the commercial breaks used to be — I was fully prepared for an interlude with Santa riding the Norelco razor. Perfectly timed animated video projection increases the TV cartoon vibe, and fuses the two forms by providing "virtual sets" to the puppet action at the center. When Rudolph and company drift on an ice floe, or the misfit toys huddle around a tiny campfire on Christmas Eve, the dark, inhospitable expanses around them enhance their isolation.
Oversimplified cartoons of talking characters like Santa can look cheap, but only appear briefly. More problematic is that most of the puppets lack mobility in their mouths or eyes, hindering their facial expressiveness: Perhaps the puppets' visual authenticity came at the expense of articulation? The puppets show limited ranges of motion for the dances, although at one point, the Christmas trees amusingly shake their "hips" like grass-skirted hula dancers.
At times, Ludwig's script feels constrained by the need to follow the original template and pause for sappy songs like "There's Always Tomorrow." Sam the Snowman (Dolph Amick) makes a folksy narrator, but couldn't Rudolph express his own feelings, rather than Sam telling us about them? Fortunately, Rudolph includes some pleasant points of expansion, including King Moonracer, ruler of the Island of Misfit Toys, playing hide-and-seek with one of his subjects. The humor relies heavily on pratfalls, but Ludwig sneaks in a couple of wry jokes, such as "Check out time is 11 a.m." on the island.
Judging from the crowds at preview performances, Rudolph's popularity will give the Center license to print bucks (pun intended). But the show feels like part of the trend for expensive stage musicals based on famous movies that use the material's familiarity as a crutch. And while adults will feel a childlike sense of wonder at the sight of, say, the Abominable Snow Monster or the Cowboy Who Rides an Ostrich, it's hard to feel much nostalgia for a TV special that's readily available on DVD, as well as being a seasonal broadcast tradition. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer reproduces the original so closely that it risks making itself irrelevant, even though kids and Christmas addicts will be shouting out with glee.