As young Jessica ran onstage in Lyric Arts' Prancer on Sunday, bundled up for a wintertime sledding expedition, one little girl in the audience whispered loudly to her mother. "She's not wearing any gloves!"
Lyric Arts Main Street Stage
Kids notice that kind of detail, and if director Laura Tahja Johnson's production gets a little fuzzy about some of the particulars, it unambiguously embraces the themes of hope and forgiveness appropriate to this seasonal attraction.
Yes, it's a tearjerker. How could it not be? Greg Taylor's 2016 play, adapted from his own script for the 1989 movie, might have been assembled in a lab from the DNA of previous feel-good entertainments about virtuous children.
Jessica (Valerie Heideman) and her older brother Steve (Carter Johnson) are being raised on a Midwestern farm by a widowed dad (Anthony R. Johnson). For reasons that remain vague but involve an ominous effigy damaged in a town-square holiday display, the actual Prancer, as in Santa's flying reindeer, wanders into the woods near Jessica's home.
His leg is injured, meaning that our heroine needs to scramble to get him back on his feet — with Christmas less than a week away! That means hiding Prancer from her father (whose gun is locked and loaded once his saplings get nibbled), summoning the skeptical vet (Brandon Osero), and saving money to buy feed.
That latter activity involves Jessica going out to find odd jobs and subsequently melting the heart of Mrs. McFarland (Alana LaBissoniere), the local curmudgeon. (If you don't think there's a smashed flower bed in this story despite the snowy setting, I've got some North Pole real estate to sell you.)
Mrs. McFarland's redemption is one of the play's multiple Pollyanna-esque elements, which also involve a heartwarming community scene after Jessica suffers an injury similar to, but not precisely the same as, falling out of a tree.
Heideman is winningly irrepressible as the credulous kid at the center of the story, boogying to Bing Crosby and confiding discreetly to the local shopping-center Santa (Brandon Holscher) that she knows he isn't the real Claus — while handing over a note to be forwarded to the genuine article.
The star of the show, though, is Prancer himself: a life-size puppet designed by Madeline Achen, who performs the role with Callie Baack. The puppeteers' heads stick out of the top of the deer, so kids can clearly see how it works, but as with most good puppetry, eventually you simply stop noticing the puppeteers and just relate to the character.
Achen's graceful, stylized design adds a distinct note of magic to Prancer, starting in the show's very first moments when Prancer enters to wander through the white-capped woods created by scenic designer Brian Proball.
Kids in the audience sat rapt for the whole 90-minute show, and the girl concerned about Jessica's winter wear wasn't the only one to have an audible reaction. When Jessica's skeptical brother Steve told Prancer sarcastically, "I can't wait to see you fly," one boy in the audience said, "Wow."
Right? Sick burn, Steve.