No, the words “economy” and “spectacular” don’t normally click. But this holiday staple - which doesn’t look a day of its 77 years, by the way - reminds you anew every year that even extravagant entertainment can be sharp, sensible, and refined. Vulgarity, whether of the linguistic or political variety, can be set aside for 90 minutes in favor of regimented talent and good-old-fashioned fun. This may be the biggest show in town, but in the ways it really counts, it’s also the most restrained.
That’s how it should be. Who wants anything standing in the way of that glorious oversized orchestra; the elaborate sets and heavenward-shooting LED light board that transform pedestrian old New York into a fantasy winter wonderland; the ever-captivating Living Nativity, which pinpoints the deepest meaning of the season without sacrificing any of the rest of the show’s considerable flair; and, of course, the indefatigable Radio City Rockettes, who with their beauty, constantly moving legs, and peerless professionalism always deserve to be at the center of your field of vision?
It’s always the most wonderful irony of the year that the production that most closely associates itself with size and excess is also the one that emphasizes its chorus girls above all else. But they do deserve it. Whether decked out as reindeer pulling the sleigh of Santa (the ever-reliable Charles Edward Hall), costumed as decorative ornaments tapping their way through an epic version of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” decked out in elaborate furs or rhinestone studded dresses, or as a workshop full of rag dolls during a sequence set in Santa’s workshop, they retain their allure and grace - each of the 36 her own kind of star.
As always, things falter a tiny bit when they stray too far from tradition. A scene with Santa, a wide-eyed young believer, and his adolescent brother dubious about the power of Christmas is always on the hokey side. And a film tribute to the roller-coaster history of the show calls more attention than it probably should to the financial devastation still gripping the country. This is also the third year that director-choreographer Linda Haberman has left the show essentially unchanged. I thought I noticed minor tweaks to the Rockettes-as-reindeer scene and the opening of the Living Nativity, but otherwise there’s little that’s new.
One must assume the economy has played a crucial role here as well. But in its own unique way, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular proves that inspiration - not money - is the ultimate artistic driving force. How else to explain how the barest, least-expensive, and oldest number remains the evening’s most riveting? It is, of course, “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” in which the Rockettes execute precise, stiff-legged steps that draw expansive, bewitching patterns from a group of tiny statuettes’ inability to do anything big at all - anything, that is, except fall in perilously slow motion when shot with a toy cannon.
With only lightly detailed, primary-color costumes, set against a stage swathed entirely in black, and based on the idea practically no movement at all can be the most moving thing on Earth, this number is the ultimate triumph of minimalism. As such, it reminds you that, in the theater, economy can be everything - even when the economy itself is struggling to be anything at all. Assuming you have the means, that’s a lesson worth exposing yourself - and your family - to in this most spectacular of ways.
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular