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Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Photo by MSG Entertainment.
We should all look as good at 75 as the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. It's celebrating its hitting the three-quarters-of-a-century mark in such high style, that you'd have to be the surliest Scrooge, the grumpiest Grinch, or the staunchest traditionalist not to be awed by its newly glittering countenance at Radio City Music Hall.

Of course, even those who insist on keeping strictly within the realm of the religious have something for them. Despite all the glitzifying updates imposed by conceiver, director, and choreographer Linda Haberman, who's gone out of her way to make the 75th anniversary production the most memorable yet, the inspirational "Living Nativity" finale is still in place. And it's a credit to Haberman and her hundreds of cohorts that it achieves the all-but-impossible task of topping in spectacle and scope everything that comes before it.

Living camels and serene processions of opulently appointed kings just have that effect. But regardless of the type of spirit you think typifies Christmas in New York, it's honored here.

Santa and his sleigh? The jolly old elf (nicely impersonated by Charles Edward Hall) flies down from the North Pole and into Radio City on a 3D journey (glasses included with every program). The Nutcracker? Tchaikovsky's timeless ballet gets a (very) slimmed down, and humored-up, rendition. The snow-covered city? A double-decker bus glides through Manhattan streets, taking in the sights and stopping in Central Park to observe two ice skaters in tip-top form. In the most predictable (and least necessary) new additions, Santa even teaches a pair of young boys to believe in the happiness of the season - complete with a day trip to his workshop.

When the songs are not of the standard-issue carol variety, they're by composer Mark Hummel and lyricist Mark Waldrop and are as harmless and tuneful in the moment as they are forgettable 30 seconds later. (Under Hummel's baton, however, the oversized orchestra is winning throughout.) Scenic designer Patrick Fahey and costume designer Frank Krenz know the perfect intervals at which to dole out their wares so that you never have time to tire of a single look. And Batwin & Robin Productions has assembled a lively collection of perpetual-motion visuals for the stage-spanning LED light board that functions as an essential part of nearly every set.

Photo by MSG Entertainment.
But - and what a wonderful but it is - not a single stitch of it is actually in pursuit of demonstrating the advances of technology. Everything exists only to make the Rockettes look good.

The Radio City dancing troupe high-kicked its way into fame with the first Spectacular in 1933, and Haberman makes sure we all understand why. While the entire production has been reconceived and polished up this year - with a few minor exceptions, it's all but unrecognizable from when I last saw it a few years ago - it's the 36 women with those 72 amazing legs gliding through it all that you remember most.

They first appear (antlers and all) as the reindeer that carry Santa on his long southward journey. They challenge-tap their way through a culture-clash version of the endless musical favorite "The Twelve Days of Christmas," the ladies dancing becoming lords a-leaping and pipers piping right before your eyes. Decked out in white fur, they're visions as the tourists who discover the magic of New York atop that bus. They appear for a few minutes as an army of extra Santas for helping the real Big Guy complete his once-a-year deliveries. And their smilies and energy inspire them to glimmer even more brightly than the 240,000 Swarovski crystals they wear in "Let Christmas Shine," a diamond-studded retrospective on seven and a half decades of the Rockettes.

Precious jewels of that particular variety are not needed in "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers." This number, along with the Nativity a fixture dating back to the inaugural 1933 Spectacular, finds pure gold in the women's abilities to bring three dozen toys' precision marching to life. Their saluting, starkly swiveling heads, meticulous rotating in place, and of course their legendary slow-motion fall are among the best special effects you'll ever see - and they emanate only from that greatest creation of all, the human body. Being reminded of the incalculable importance of people at a time when society's focus shifts even more toward the commercial is one of the greatest gifts you can put - or find - under the tree.

Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Through December 30
Radio City Music Hall, 6th Avenue between 50th Street and 51st Street.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Radio City Music Hall

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