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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, April 24, 2014

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In Holiday Guide Reviews

The cast of First Stage Children's Theater's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

First Stage's "Rudolph" delivers the first gift of the holiday season


The magic of Christmas means so many different things to so many different people.

It can mean presents, food, family, snowstorms, pine trees and ornaments.

But for the magnificent team at First Stage Children's Theater, the magic of Christmas means ..."MAGIC."

Magic is what they wove with the opening Friday night of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," a perfect slice of holiday pie for everyone with a child, or with a little child in them.

It's difficult to find words to do justice to this spectacular display of theater – not children's theater, but theater. The production has everything.

It has a great story about a little reindeer with a red nose and all the other reindeer that make fun of him and call him a misfit. He is friends with an elf named Hermey who doesn't want to make toys but would rather be a dentist.

Their friendship is carved out of a mutual loneliness and sadness at the "misfit" label they wear around their shoulders.

Like all good stories, though, justice triumphs in the end when, after travel and travail, Santa – who is fearful of a Christmas Eve fog and storm – asks, "Rudolph with your nose so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"

And off they go with a sleigh full of toys for all of the good little girls and boys.

The audience at this play, however, gets the best present of all. First Stage has wrapped this gift and handed it to us on a silver platter.

Let's start with the cast – both the adults and the kids who make up the silver cast. They have a glee about them that is contagious, and director Jeff Frank has wisely let them play fantasy games while we shrug off our realities for a little over an hour.

Robert Spencer, as wonderful an actor as this city has to offer, plays Sam the Snowman with the kind of jocular élan that guides us through this journey of the imagination. He is joined by such theatrical wonders as Lee Becker, Drew Brhel, Todd Denning, Karen Estrada and Malkia Stampley. They add such a touch of skill that just clapping seems to be not enough.

A special word must go to Matt Daniels, who plays the Boss Elf. As he mutters himself off stage a couple of times, the laughter from both children and adults was obvious. We would be hard-pressed to find an actor who moves with such precision and abandon anywhere in the theater. Every move and every gesture have meaning and structure and purpose, and he continues to be a delight to the eyes.

There is a young woman in this play named Emily Newmark who plays Clarice, the young doe that Rudolph has a small crush on. And she also carries a small torch for Rudolph.

There is a moment when Newmark, who sings with a bright clarity, lets Rudolph know that "there's always tomorrow when dreams can come true."
That touching moment is at the heart of this story.

There is a place for everyone, even the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys or a reindeer with a shiny red nose. And if you don't find your place today, you may just as well find it tomorrow.


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