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Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Photo courtesy MSG Entertainment.

As the economy trudges on, recovering far more slowly than most of us would prefer, downsizing becomes an omnipresent threat. The proliferation of Broadway plays and musicals that are small in size and even smaller in stature shows that, at least as far as producers' pockets are concerned, happy days are not yet here again. But despite what the money men may want to convince you with their borderline-anemic outings, there's simply nothing like a good, old-fashioned big one. And in that way, and so many others, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular delivers this year as deliciously as it always has.

That's because it's constructed from components that never go out of style. Expansive storybook sets (by Patrick Fahey) capture the candy-hued color and wintry wonder of the holiday season from New York to the North Pole. A giddily huge orchestra (which Gary Adler spiritedly conducts) plays through a cheery amalgamation of familiar tunes and new compositions, with a comfortable selection of stories and skits that highlight the unpredictability crouching inside every fastidiously wrapped package. And it's all brought together under the tasteful-yet-flashy direction and choreography of conceiver Linda Haberman, who knows when you should take in the whole stage and when only a single face is required—and makes sure to guide your eyes appropriately. (She has not, however, updated the show much for 2010—there might be a few small tweaks here and there, but for the most part it uses the same structure and scenes it has for the last few years.)

The Spectacular's unique mixture of art, craft, and commercial canniness ultimately find their fullest expression in the most gleaming feature of all: the Radio City Rockettes. The 36 gorgeous dancers are the keenest tie between the enterprise's dueling yuletide and capitalistic leanings. They give a powerful human face—and 72 even more stunning legs—to a 90-minute evening that could otherwise easily become mechanical. Their laser-focused precision, uncorkable bubbliness, and graceful-sexy way of sporting Frank Krenz's timelessly glittery costumes simultaneously capture both the mysticism and reality of show-biz: the impossible perfection that, by dint of its very existence, is one of the performing arts' finest investments.

And one, by the way, that never fails to pay off. Whether stomping their hooves in impeccable rhythm as Santa's reindeer (the delightful Charles Edward Hall returns yet again as the jolliest of Jolly Old Elves), embodying a post-modern (and largely wordless) retelling of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," or exploring the wonders of Manhattan or Santa's bustling workshop, they're worth their weight in platinum. (Or, as befits the glamorous recounting of the varied history of the Spectacular itself, diamonds.) And, in climactic and haunting "Living Nativity," they even demonstrate they can be varying and surprising physical actresses (no small feat when decked out as wise men and navigating through herds of live camels and sheep).

Their signature moment, of course, is the classic "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," one of the two holdouts (with the Nativity) of the first Spectacular in 1933. Contrary to everything else on view, it's a triumph of minimalism: The Rockettes march about using only the faintest of steps, covering huge swaths of the stage only by their sheer numbers. Yet as lines of Rockettes split, spin, and eventually fill the enormous Radio City stage, you realize that the goal of the "Parade" is to show how the tiniest movements can have a major impact on everything and everyone around them.

So in need of this message was the audience at the Tuesday opening night performance that they burst into spontaneous applause at every new configuration of soldiers—far more than I can ever recall happening before. They were hungering for more than just the latest fad, and the anything-but-wooden Rockettes were satiating them in the grandest ways possible. Who cares how old the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is? Its facility at connecting with our deepest need for fulfilling entertainment in ways both sweeping and intimate makes it seem, at 77, like the youngest and freshest show in town.

Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Through December 30
Radio City Music Hall, 50th Street at Avenue of the Americas
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Radio City Music Hall

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