Talkin' Broadway HomePast ColumnsAbout





Off Broadway


Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Who cares if Thanksgiving hasn't happened yet? (Besides turkeys and cranberries, that is.) In the ways that matter most, the holiday season in New York kicks off, both figuratively and literally, with the opening of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. Argue with the Rockettes at your peril, because all 36 in this classic end-of-year offering look like they have the tenacity and the hamstrings to keep you in line (if maybe not quite as much as they do themselves). But there's an extra, shiny incentive in store for 2011, even before the presents have gone under the tree (or, for that matter, before the tree has been chopped down): a Spectacular that's more spectacular than before.

Though some key elements remain unaltered — Linda Haberman is still the conceiver, director, and choreographer, and Charles Edward Hall is back (for his 25th turn!) as Santa Claus — the show is sharper and more exciting now than it became during its 75th-anniversary retrofit four years ago. In the newer Big Numbers that remain intact, subtle changes to the costumes (Frank Krenz and Martin Pakledinaz) and choreography have made big impacts. The reindeer-antlered Rockette fun of "Sleigh Ride" is more immediate, "New York at Christmas" (with onstage ice skating and the double-decker bus) features more glimmering and festive costumes, and the glamorous "Let Christmas Shine" is allowed to sparkle on its own without the informative-but-extraneous filmed retrospective that formerly preceded it.

Then there's "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which has shed its cheesier fringe layers to become a more vivid and adult reimagining of the classic challenge song. This year, in fact, is the first in which I've completely and unapologetically liked that routine, and seen it as fully worthy of the 72 insurance-worthy Rockette legs that tromp through it. Some minor adjustments to "Here Comes Santa Claus" help that number build better than it ever has, and give the impression that its stage full of terpsichorean Kris Kringles is a triumph rather than a gimmick (if an admittedly clever one).

Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Photo by Gene Schiavone.

The most astonishing new material comes in the second half, in the "story" sequence that previously followed two brothers with varying degrees of belief in Santa. A mother desperate to obtain the hottest new doll for her daughter, but finding every Manhattan department store empty, gets a special gift of her own in the form of a magical video game that transforms the Rockettes into monster-clobbering avatars of choreographic righteousness. The scenes themselves are sweet; and musical-theatre favorites De'Adre Aziza and Natalie Venetia Belcon alternate with Adrienne Muller as the mother, who gets a lovely revelatory song about the giving spirit called "Closer Than I Knew." But the game is a visual marvel, with gorgeous, intelligent-looking 3D (by Reel FX) that complements the more cartoony "Santa Flies to New York" in ways that, despite the game's content, are surprisingly subtle and mature.

Of course those qualities also describe the show's two stalwart entries, "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and "The Living Nativity," both of which are just as eye-popping as ever. The former thrills through its minimalism and discipline, the latter because of its no-holds-barred extravagance. The Nativity even escorts its pageantry beyond the stage by way of an elaborate new digital projection system that extends the essential concepts of Patrick Fahey's scenic design onto the walls of the house itself. Though this effect, which is also used extensively in a fresh scene in Santa's workshop (without the Rockettes–as–rag dolls dance, alas), is attractive, it's only the collection of colored sprinkles you'd never care about if a substantial cake weren't frosting-plastered beneath them.

That's never a worry with this show. The only real issue facing this incarnation is: How will it top, or even just build upon, itself in 2012, when it celebrates its next Major Anniversary? We'll have to wait a year to find out the answer to that. Until then, it's easy enough to be content with the additions and expansions this time around. They include, by the way, a swinging finale of "Joy to the World" that sends you out into the cold air on a hot note. It's a spirited way to end the show, but it's hardly necessary. Haberman, the Rockettes, and the rest of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular generate plenty of joy on their own.


Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Through January 2
Radio City Music Hall is located on 6th Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Radio City Music Hall