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Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 20, 2016


Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Photo by MSG Entertainment

It's been tempting, over the course of this long, hyperpoliticized year, and especially during the past (yikes) tumultuous week and a half, to want to check out entirely. But, as it's wont to do this time of year, Radio City Music Hall is reminding us that there are a few dozen excellent reasons to stick it out until the spring melts the icy winds (and hearts) of national acrimony. Their annual holiday extravaganza, in 2016 rechristened as the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes, is a curative that could not be more needed right now. And its stunning stars, as always, deliver the goods.

Those would, of course, be the 36 Rockettes who, through their military-precise hoofing, kicking, and goodwill knock out the blues and propel us into the Technicolor universe of eternal Yuletide happiness in which this show so comfortably rests. Whether they're costumed (variously by Gregg Barnes, Frank Krenz, and the late Martin Pakledinaz) as reindeer, toy-making elves, rag dolls, Ol' Saint Nick himself, wooden soldiers, inhabitants of the ancient Middle East (for the ever-uplifting Living Nativity), or their own bountifully glamorous selves, they own their top-spot billing and are in unwavering command of the talent that got them there.

It's tough to pick a favorite moment, aside from the "March of Wooden Soldiers," which remains pinpoint clarity and creativity and completely satisfying, even though it's been on the bill since the Spectacular's premiere in the early 1930s. I do love their tap-driven deconstruction of "12 Days of Christmas," which keeps breaking apart and recombining tiny groups of the women until they unite for the flourishing, unison finish. And there's just something unavoidably friendly and likable about their upscale-tourist spin in "New York at Christmas," as they gradually progress from sightseers in glittering, fur-lined overcoats to the sequin-strewn spirit of Times Square. But they sparkle no less elegantly when embodying crystal-encrusted snowflakes for the dreamlike "Let it Snow" sequence near the end.


Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Photo by MSG Entertainment

They just work, just like the Christmas Spectacular just works—a model of mechanical, at times seemingly scientific, approach to mainstream entertainment it's long represented. Overlooking things this year are director and choreographer Julie Branam and musical director Kevin Stites, experienced hands, with the design (also including Patrick Fahey of 8 Hands High for the sprawling, eye-popping sets, Batwin + Robin Productions for the epic LED projections, and David Agress for the constantly playful lights) similarly resembling that of previous outings. Charles Edward Hall is, naturally, still on hand as a quintessential (and wonderful) Santa Claus narrator. And if you know the show well, the original writing (by Mark Waldrop) and music (Gary Adler and Mark Hummel), will also echo with familiarity, particularly in the sentimental second half that uses a little story about two gift-shopping brothers to add an extra dose of humanity.

Even so, I'm positive some new material has found its way into the mix this year. The overture (arranged by Stites and orchestrated by Christopher Jahnke) incorporates a broader swatch of Christmas songs now, as well as the vocalists and—most surprising to my ear—the two organists who usually vanish after providing the pre-show tunes. And there were some dance breaks (in "12 Days" for sure, but also the "New York at Christmas" and "Here Comes Santa Claus" blow-outs) that I didn't recognize—they really sounded like jolts of old-fashioned melody woven in, admittedly skillfully, to contribute even more to the evening's richly timeless feel.

That's not in any way a problem, but it's not needed—nothing can make the Christmas Spectacular old-fashioned. It doesn't just exist in its own isolated world: It creates it anew every year, hanging on to some traditions here and injecting a few new things there, but always going where the fun is to be found and embracing it wholeheartedly. No, it doesn't solve any of the world or the country's pressing problems. But it's expert at making you forget them for 90 minutes. And in a year like 2016, you couldn't ask for a better Christmas miracle.


Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular
Through January 2, 2017
Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) between West 50th and West 51st Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.rockettes.com


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