Photos courtesy of Character Arts, LLC. All elements © and ™ under license to Character Arts, LLC.
The holiday season rouses feelings of nostalgia and for many, the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated films such as The Year Without A Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman. However, one that may fly above the rest is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Initially the red-nosed hero was created as a coloring book in 1939 for Montgomery Ward. After the unveiling, there were songs and other publications. By 1964, Rankin and Bass took on the story and created an instant holiday classic.
The iconic red nose remains embedded in the holiday dreams. For the newest generation, the Coterie Theatre offers a fresh take on Rudolph with unique costuming, but the familiar strains of tunes everyone knows and loves, says music director Anthony Edwards.
Anthony Edwards, photo by Tim Scott
Edwards, like Rudolph, has leadership that many may not know or see, but his work has been seen all over the city. Right now, his musical skills and influences can be felt in The Christmas Carol at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and The Coterie. His mentor, the late Molly Jessup, molded him and “taught him everything to do.” “She instilled in me all the qualities that I can use to help make someone else better. I learned how to examine how people learn and offer up different processes to bring out the best.” He is also an adjunct faculty member in the Theatre Department at UMKC and All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church.
He’s not just a “music guy,” but a hands-on director who learns about the sets and costumes. “I love when songs have to be introduced. We have run out of spoken words. Songs make it better and I want that to be part of the experience. I want to pull the best performances from the actors and to do that, I have to watch it all. I want to be involved in good storytelling.”
Edwards has worked on other challenging shows which feature animals. The Coterie’s Lucky Duck drew record audiences and even took the cast and crew to New York. “We are animals all the time,” he says. “The actors and actresses get to be reindeer and play reindeer games.”
Like all Coterie shows, there are educational components and other lessons. With Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the show is all about differences and acceptance. “The message, like Rudolph, is timeless,” Edwards says. “The Coterie is all about the kids and what they enjoy. We act down to them as they sit on the floor. We engage them. We see this as a theme that time has not taken care of … the idea of acceptance is still relevant.” In 1964, cultural differences and race riots were part of the American landscape. Edwards brought up the recent tensions in Ferguson as a reason to stage Rudolph.
However, Edwards makes sure the actors and actresses not only understand the moral lessons, but also the vocal lessons. His favorite song from the musical is Clarice’s ballad There’s Always Tomorrow. “She is Rudolph’s support and the song just has a sweetness that speaks to you,” he says.
While Rudolph is the title character, the action and the plot development go nowhere without the guidance of Sam the Snowman. This character serves as the narrator. In the original cartoon, the snowman looked remarkably like the actor and singer Burl Ives. The Coterie’s Sam the Snowman will look like Ron Lackey, local actor and singer.
Lackey is just coming off on a run at The Coterie where he played E.D Dixon in Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He’s also appeared in Bud, Not Buddy. Ron’s other local credits include Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Spinning Tree Theatre, Evita at Musical Theatre Heritage, and Wizard of Oz and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Columbian Theatre. In addition to being a graphic designer, web designer, and video editor, Lackey is also a licensed minister and former worship pastor of 15 years. Ron sings, plays piano and drums, and now leads an R&B funk band called 2Proud2Beg that performs around Kansas City.
Lackey’s four children, preteens and teens all, encouraged their father to take the role. “They are excited about what Dad is doing and they even told me that I am doing something cool, pun intended.” This will also be Lackey’s first Christmas show since he moved to the metropolitan area six years ago. “I know it’s going to be tough, but with the support of my family, I just have to do the musical.”
Lackey remembers the emotions that float around when he talks about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. “The special would come on once a year and the family would gather to watch it on television. When I had kids of my own, I wanted them to love the show as much as I did. Now, every Christmas Eve, we watch Rudolph and a few other Rankin/Bass as part of that tradition.”
Initially, Lackey didn’t expect to audition for the musical until he received a phone call from Jeff Church, The Coterie’s artistic director. “I didn’t think there was a part for me, but Jeff said I would be good for Sam the Snowman. I could see myself in the role so I auditioned, but I still wasn’t sure. However, when I saw Anthony’s vision and got offered the part, I jumped.”
Sam the Snowman sings three iconic tunes: Silver and Gold, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Have a Holly Jolly Christmas. “The songs are charming and warm. Sam, for being a snowman, has to radiate warmth and create an inviting place.” Lackey doesn’t want to impersonate Ives. “It’s not an impersonation, but rather a realization that what makes Sam so loveable and iconic is this warmth of character. I’m not recreating Ives, but rather the essence.”
Lackey says that as an actor, he has to bring his own abilities and who he is to the role. “My plan is to allow the character to develop and allow what makes him special to reveal itself.”
At the time of the interview, costuming was still in the works, but the appearance of a snowman will be there, Lackey says. “Sam will be there on stage for the people, serving as the singer, storyteller and presence on stage. I am so excited.”
Of the pieces, his favorite is Silver and Gold. “There is something so special about the song. Sam invites everyone in and loves telling the story. It’s going to be a great opportunity to be part of this show. I know we are going to get to introduce some people to Rudolph and for others, it’s going to be reconnecting with that childhood favorite.. I know it’s going to be wonderful to watch the children during the school shows and then the older audiences who come in later on. As an actor, you don’t get this really anywhere else.”
Edwards agrees with Lackey and hopes that the family experience will help stir the Christmas spirit. “A good musical at the Coterie is gratifying. Getting to watch an audience respond is just joyful and isn’t that what Christmas is all about?”