Eight times a week, at The Paramount Theatre, a man becomes a reindeer.
For the musical “Frozen,” based on the hit Disney animated movie and currently in residence at the Paramount until March 1, an everyday miracle happens backstage, before every show. An actor, by means of a nearly 50-pound design so elaborate that it’s called a puppet rather than a costume, is transformed into a four-legged, hoofed and antlered scene-stealer named Sven. Watching him, you immediately forget that there’s a person inside, planking; it seems as if a massive, endearingly shaggy creature has wandered on stage.
“It’s one of the most magical parts of the show,” said actor Collin Baja, who shares the role of Sven with Evan Strand. (Due to the physical demands of the part, the role is split, with each actor playing four shows a week.) “I can’t tell you how many people are still confused about how this is done, how many kids are ecstatic to see Sven. It’s such a beautiful, intricate, elaborate design that’s really well done.”
To create this stunning effect is challenging for Baja and Strand, to say the least: Being onstage as Sven — up to eight or nine minutes at a time — means being on all fours with the weight held by the arms (feet, encased in hooves, are pointing straight down; only when galloping do the feet take any pressure). The elaborate Sven head, molded on the actor’s own, requires a mouth guard and helmet, and vision — peering through the reindeer’s throat — is limited; fellow actors can only be seen from the waistline down. (“We basically know everyone’s shoes and shadows really well,” Baja said.)
And while it’s very hot inside that puppet, it can’t be fully removed between scenes. Puppet designer Michael Curry, who created Sven, said in a 2018 interview with Backstage.com that actors playing the character “have to be like a Navy SEAL in terms of your conditioning and your ability to focus and handle isolation and claustrophobia.”
Baja, who has experience with physically challenging roles (he appeared on Broadway as a horse in “Equus” and in several roles in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”), seems to take it in stride; playing Sven, he said, requires “being incredibly diligent and smart about how to take care of your body along the way.” This includes an elaborate warmup before every show, and a careful cool-down afterward (literally; it involves ice packs), as well as physical therapy sessions three times a week.
During the show, he’s assisted backstage by key dresser/puppet supervisor Sue McLaughlin — “my hero,” said Baja — who towels down his face and offers a water bottle. Actors playing Sven have the option of having an air-conditioning hose inserted into the puppet while offstage, to cool off; Baja declines this, preferring to “stay super-warm and loose.”
According to Baja, Sven almost didn’t make it into the show at all — producers of the show, which premiered on Broadway two years ago, worried about how the character could be translated into an artful yet believable animal on stage. But designer Curry (who also created the production’s Olaf the snowman) found a way to pay tribute to the Disney-fied movie character and yet craft something unique for the stage: a head made from carbon fiber and topped with moss-strewn antlers, a body crafted from tattered triangles of crinkle silk, legs ending in etched hoofs.
On the stage of a then-empty Paramount last week, Baja showed visitors the different elements of the costume. (Each Sven has his own version, sized to fit perfectly.) Over sweat-wicking dark tights and undershirt, he first puts on what he calls a “booty pad” (“It’s my Kardashian dream come true!”), and then special boots with stilts. The footwear, which looks like zoological pointe shoes, has to be carefully tied; it would be dangerous if a lace came undone.
Then comes a backpack-ish structure that outlines Sven’s spine, followed by gloves (with wrist support), furry leggings and a jacketlike garment that zips up the front. A multicolored saddlecloth goes on in back, then the sleeves, and a helmet. For much of this Baja is seated on a stool, with Sven’s head dangling above from a rubber band. Finally, the head is lowered onto Baja, who rises slowly from the stool — and suddenly you gasp, because a reindeer seems to have entered the room.
You’d think that being encased in all of this would make the actual performance of the role nearly impossible, but Baja showed how he can control Sven’s eyes and ears (they can flick and blink, by manipulating a wire inside a front leg) and, once the head was off again, he spoke of how the acting element evolved. “We’re still an actor inside of it,” he said. “At first it was baby steps, and now it’s really fun — interacting with each person, there’s still new choices being made, new fun things we’re discovering.”
Contracted to play Sven through mid-November, he says he’s thoroughly enjoying the effect that Sven has on audiences. On his first entrance as Sven, Baja can see the first five rows of the audience, with their dazzled faces. “You can see the macho-est of men going, ‘oohh!’,” he said, laughing. “It’s pretty breathtaking.”
“Frozen,” through March 1; Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St.; tickets begin at $25; 800-982-2787, stgpresents.org