Red-nosed reindeer, check, but musicians missing

THEATER REVIEW: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" at the Broadway Playhouse ★★

Liam Dahlborn as Hermey the Elf, Michael Accardo as Yukon Cornelius, and Armando Carlo IV as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the  musical 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Liam Dahlborn as Hermey the Elf, Michael Accardo as Yukon Cornelius, and Armando Carlo IV as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the musical 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." (Tom McGrath / November 18, 2013)

To understand why live musicians are so important to musical theater, you need only spend some time with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical," the new seasonal attraction at the Broadway Playhouse, which features a cast of 24 actors but not a single musician in the building.

Now, I'm of the view that a downtown Chicago musical at a major destination like Water Tower Place, with a top ticket in excess of $50, should, with only rare exceptions, feature music played live. Sure, you don't need a costly compliment of strings to make "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" come alive, but whether there are six or 60, there should be sense that the notes you hear are coming from at least a few artists whose presence you can discern. We can all DVR "Rudolph," the animated Christmas TV special on which this show is based, to our heart's content. If we're getting dressed up and seeing the deer with the red honker in a theater, then theatrical the experience should be.

But this show makes a yet stronger case. "Rudolph," essentially an import from Milwaukee's First Stage children's theater, not only contains songs, but it's heavily underscored throughout. And that traps the actors, who, time and time again, are forced to wait for the music to catch up what they are doing. In other words, an elf will finish his line and then stand there, ears cocked for the tape, waiting for the right musical cue. On Sunday afternoon, storm braved for your edification, even with a regular-hued sniffer, I was barely able to repress an urge to rip out the slow-moving karaoke track and suggest everyone perform a cappella and make this whole thing a Christmas singalong. We all knew the words. It would have been a lot more fun and organic, and I'd venture the cast would have been relieved.

"Rudolph" is by no means a total bust. Brandon Kirkham's boldly colored production design is quite lovely, replete with some terrific, unpretentious puppets, including an aptly massive abominable snowdude and plenty of little furry animals to coax the eyes of the pint-sized theatergoer. This is, for sure, a show for younger kids (I'd say ages 4-7), and that's not a bad thing, since it can be tough to find the right introduction to show-business for that particular demographic. This is a very little-kids-friendly environment, a traditional yarn told with respect, and, of course, just the right kind of story to get everyone excited for Christmas Eve.

Some of the broad acting, frankly, is sized more for Soldier Field. The poor narrator, Sam the self-propelled Snowman (Sean Patrick Fawcett) is hemmed in not only by that tape but by a costume that moves at about 0.0001 miles per hour, sucking the pace out of the show every time he showed up. Actually the star of the show Saturday was not Sam nor Santa (Robb Alton) nor even Rudy, but a kid named Liam Dahlborn, playing Hermey the Elf, who clearly decided nothing was going to get in his way. So if you've looked up this review, say, 20 years from now, yes, I'm saying he's gonna be a star some day. Hope he gets his own band.

cjones5@tribune.com

LET US HEAR FROM YOU: Parents, what's your favorite holiday show? Tell us on theaterchat.chicagotribune.com.

When: Through Jan. 5

Where: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.

Running time: 1 hours, 25 minutes

Tickets: $21-$53 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com

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