Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Well-executed entertainment that still left the writer pining for more art
Reviewed by Jonelle Seitz, Fri., Dec. 24, 2010
Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Bass Concert Hall, 23rd Street & Robert Dedman Drive, 471-1444,
Through Dec. 26
Running time: 2 hr.
Just as there are people who go to church once a year at Christmastime, there are those who go to theatre once a year at Christmastime, and many of them choose The Nutcracker or the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Since Radio City began touring its Spectacular in 1994, ballet companies in some cities have complained that the Rockettes have stolen ticket sales, and sometimes venues, from their Nutcracker productions, which represent large chunks of their annual revenue. While you might think that The Nutcracker and the Spectacular are apples and oranges, the truth is that lots of folks have to choose one over the other (not to mention the many other smaller-scale shows and nondance productions). And with most American Nutcrackers being degenerated, taste-starved versions of the classic ballet, I – a ballet lover who, at this time of year, really wants nothing more than to eat cookies and be left alone to watch the marathon of world-class Nutcrackers on Ovation – wondered whether those seeking a holiday dance experience might do better to choose the entertainment of the Spectacular over the watered-down art of most Nutcrackers.
The touring Spectacular is, understandably, scaled down from the New York version, but the dance numbers themselves are adapted from the original show. The striking-in-its-simplicity "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" dates back to the Spectacular's premiere in 1933. The Rockettes' precision and synchronicity mesmerize and, like the locking gears of the vintage toys, pull the viewer back to a simpler time. Later, the dancers become rag dolls in Santa's workshop, and adorable costumes and a whimsical set are paired with perfectly styled dancing to lovely effect. In other scenes, the Rockettes perform in a more typical style – smiles flashing, legs stockinged, costuming often inconsequential – but the precision and choreography are still impressive. During the opening performance on Dec. 17, the Rockettes, along with the supplemental performers who padded the show, all maintained high energy, and the costumes and decor ranged from adequate to gorgeous. I'm not one to use words like "spectacular" easily, but I'd say that as holiday entertainment, the show as a whole does a pretty good job.
Less impressive is the Nutcracker parody by non-Rockette dancers in bear suits – not because The Nutcracker is untouchable but because trained dancers in bear suits, to me, at least, are not funny but pathetic. Also unimpressive is the casting of three performers with dwarfism as elves, baby bears, and small snowmen, and the audience's laughter at the first appearance of an elf onstage. Yes, the costume was ridiculous, but so were those of the ballerina bears, which did not seem to provoke laughter from adults. Isn't there a more tasteful way to get a laugh while letting these performers keep their jobs? After pondering this until deadline, I don't know.
The final scene, another classic, is "The Living Nativity," which is exactly what it sounds like. Here, the frenzied pace and secular subject matter take a sharp turn toward the pious. As the Nativity unfolds onstage (complete with live camels!), a solemn poem about Jesus Christ is both played over the sound system and projected over the stage.
The harsh break in the program's flow notwithstanding, this is where my mind turned back to Nutcracker. While the Spectacular shares many elements with the ballet – fake snow, a magical land, giant Christmas trees – its brand of spirituality seemed a bit grab-you-by-the-collar for me. The Nutcracker is, of course, set during Christmas, but it never asks you to be a Christian (and outside of the United States, the performances of the ballet aren't restricted to Christmastime). In its best versions, it invites nondenominational catharsis through the Tchaikovsky score, the utterly artificial art of ballet, and choreography that exudes the range of emotion the score reaches. Not everyone will share this view, I am sure, but for me, as well-executed as the Spectacular was, its entertainment wasn't enough to keep me from pining for a bit more art.