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2008 Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

2008 Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Photo courtesy of Radio City Music Hall.

An uncertain economy. The uncertain tenure of a new president-to-be, and the all-too-certain acrimony between those who voted for him and those who didn't. For that matter, the still-uncertain outcomes of Senate races that could drastically alter the course of the country. If ever in recent years the United States has needed a beacon of stability, it's now. And nothing else fills that bill quite as well as the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which has at last opened to give the holiday season its desperately needed official kickoff.

That that kick is delivered time and time again during the 90-minute show from the lengthy, lovely legs of 36 always-delectable Rockettes is just the froth on the eggnog. They remain the evening's undisputed stars - and, when in the form of an old-fashioned chorus line (whether costumed by Frank Krenz as reindeer, toys, or themselves) or in the preciously precise "March of the Wooden Soldiers," its most dazzling special effect - but they're one part of a thoroughly integrated evening of old-fashioned entertainment that for 76 years has pinpointed and celebrated the social and spiritual meaning of Christmas in New York.

Because the show's chemistry is so specific, in most circumstances it tends to noticeably change little from year to year. (Last year's full-scale rethinking for the diamond jubilee was a notable exception.) The 2008 incarnation is definitely in that category, with director-choreographer Linda Haberman polishing and expanding most of the 12 sequences comprising the evening, but instituting changes more about appearance or degree than foundation.

When Santa (the jolly and stalwart Charles Edward Hall) reveals to a pair of skeptical young boys how he magically appears in thousands of places at once in "Here Comes Santa Claus," the congregation of Kris Kringles seems to step higher, and for longer, than before. The whirlwind tour of Midtown in "New York at Christmas," with the Rockettes riding on a real double-decker bus, takes in more sights and concludes with eye- and ear-popping fireworks. And, though I can't identify any specific changes, I thought the 3D component of Santa's sleigh ride from the North Pole to Manhattan looked crisper than it ever has.

Haberman hasn't skimped on pointing up her performers, either. The challenge tap topping the fully danced "Twelve Days of Christmas" specialty for the Rockettes had a percussive urgency this year it didn't last year. The prima-ballerina bear in the lighthearted abbreviation of "The Nutcracker" humorously hogs the spotlight for longer than in years past. Conductor Gary Adler's enormous orchestra earns its platinum star just by showing up, and essentially dwarfing any you'll find on Broadway except (maybe) for the one at South Pacific. The improved glitz of everything else just makes you appreciate the quiet pleasures of the climactic "Living Nativity" all the more, when living animals join the dozens of cast members to anchor the evening with its always-moving rendition of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

But Haberman ensures in that scene, as in the ones that precede it, that your focus is never misplaced. Through no fault of scenic designer Patrick Fahey, whose constructions of the Radio City Music Hall fa├žade, Santa's Workshop, and everything in between (often with the help of lighting designer David Agress and Batwin & Robin Productions for the giant upstage LED board) are never less than astounding, the human scenery tends to dwarf the sets. Even at, or perhaps especially at, Radio City Music Hall, that's how it should be. How nice that even if we can count on nothing else in the world right now, we can at least depend on that.

2008 Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Through December 30
Radio City Music Hall, 50th Street at Avenue of the Americas
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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