The professional children's theater company Growing Stage knows how to cater to the tots that fill their seats. When you walk into the historic Palace Theatre in Netcong, NJ, you step into an enchanted land perfect for children of all ages. Murals of classic characters adorn the walls inside the theater. A 'reindeer' shopping area takes up a back corner of the space for this holiday season. And a painted brick road creates the center aisle making sure that audiences know they are in a land for children.
I happily attended a performance of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to get me into the Christmas spirit. The moment the overture started, I was transported back to that of my own youth watching the yearly stop-motion show. All of the classic Johnny Marks songs and musical underscoring come directly from the beloved Rankin-Bass television special. And Growing Stage does not disappoint with this 'live action' production. Winter wonderland sets of snow trees and the Christmas town roll on and off stage (many times pushed by reindeer, elves, and rabbits). As someone who has watched the show so many times I believe I could quote it, I was so entranced by the attention to detail in costume design (by Lori B. Lawrence and Scaramouche Costumes) and set and prop design (by Perry Arthur Kroeger). It was obvious they had a shared desire with director Stephen L. Fredericks to give audiences what they know from television. But this production takes the wonderful story to a new level with so much dancing choreographed by Jillian Petrie and musical direction by Laura Petrie. It is a perfect mix of nostalgia for older audiences members and Christmas wonder for those young.
I love that Growing Stage utilizes the likes of professional actors mixed with adorable children to fill out the roles on stage. The professional artists make up some of the larger roles, but I must admit that I was impressed with this fine company across the boards. Becky Nitka is wonderfully child-like in the title role and has her misfit match in P.J. Schweizer's comical Hermey. These two take us on the lessoned-filled journey that 'different' is not a bad thing while entertaining us in dance and song. Megan Hurley's Clarice (the doe that catches the eye of Rudolph) has the beautiful soprano song There's Always Tomorrow from the movie, but adds a graceful ballet to the mix. David Spellman, William Ward, Will Sandoval and Steven Nitka all bring excellent exuberance to Yukon Cornelius, Sam the Snowman, Coach Comet and Donner/Boss Elf while making me believe their claymation counterparts have truly come to life. Director Stephen Fredericks is the much loved man in the red suit and his Santa was spot on. If I closed my eyes I swore I was hearing the soundtrack from the TV show. Actually, each seemed to have truly watched the movie several times to deliver memorable lines in the way our ears are accustomed to hearing it (a special shout out to young Bryn Bennett as Charlie in the Box), yet still making the roles their own. I was quite impressed with the dances the children would do...right down to the two bunnies in the winter wonderland we all know from the TV show. Huge kudos to this production in how they handled King Moonracer and The Abominable Snowman.
I had such an enjoyable afternoon and the cheers and smiling faces on the young audiences showed they did as well. The only thing I could wish for is that microphones were used during the songs as voices would get lost behind the music too often. Perhaps someone out there will learn from Scrooge this season and want to make a nice sized donation to Growing Stage so all those voices can be heard with a state-of-the art sound system.
Jump in those sleighs and get to Netcong as fast as you can! The show runs through December 23. Full details can be found on their website: www.growingstage.com
All photos by Danny Campos